Q. My 13-year-old daughter is begging me to be allowed to date. She claims all the other kids in her eighth grade class are allowed to go out with their boyfriends and girlfriends, and she is the only one who isn’t permitted to socialize this way. Eighth grade seems far too young to permit kids to pair off, much less promote this outcome by providing transportation and resources. If teens start dating in eighth grade, what can they look forward to in high school? Our rule is that our daughter can socialize in groups for now and may begin dating when she is 16. Should we reconsider this policy in light of the fact that her friends are all dating? —FEELING PRESSURED
A. As if peer pressure weren’t difficult enough for kids to resist, these days peer pressure is even worse for parents! Many of us find ourselves questioning our judgment or reconsidering our rules because it feels as though we’re the only ones setting limits or requiring our kids to wait for certain privileges.
If it seems times have changed, they have. Hardly anyone dated at 13 when we were growing up. Back then, dating began when teens became licensed drivers and a guy could pick a girl up and take her out for the evening. No one wanted to date if it meant being driven around town by their parents! So how did dating in middle school become the new norm?
Certainly, media has played a huge role in shaping kids’ expectations about dating and coupling. TV shows, movies, and music focus almost exclusively on pairing off, hooking up, and finding love. Even media content for very young kids contains hypersexual messages that play up themes of romantic coupling.
We can also blame the marketing phenomenon known as “age compression," or KGOY (Kids Getting Older Younger). Marketers created this concept as a way to expand the audience of available consumers. By promoting what formerly were teen behaviors among preteens and targeting them with advertising, they broadened the base of movie-going, dinner-buying consumers.
Despite these cultural trends, and notwithstanding adolescent hormones that rage by the eighth grade, 13 still is too early for dating. Dating promotes the expectation of coupling, and in our hypersexual culture, this is dangerous territory.
Your rules for socializing are perfectly reasonable. Young teens need the freedom to hang out with friends—girls and guys—without the pressure of pairing off. School dances or church functions allow for the occasional “date," and this is a healthy way to practice socializing in a more formal setting. Otherwise, the limits you have set for your daughter are not burdensome. In fact, she may secretly appreciate that you have set boundaries on her availability for becoming more involved with a boy.
However, the key to making your policy work is open, supportive communication. You must acknowledge that your rules are different from other families’ rules and thank her for complying with them. Talk to her about what’s happening socially among her friends without sounding judgmental so she’ll confide in you. When you hear about couples who break up and are brokenhearted, you might say, “That’s exactly why we don’t want you pairing off at this age. It can be really hard to have your feelings hurt that way, and we don’t see how it would benefit you to go through that at 13."
When your daughter understands that you’re not trying to spoil her fun but instead protecting her from things that she’s too young to experience, she’s likely to appreciate your limits, even if they seem difficult. Don’t make your policy seem like a punishment, but rather, reassure your daughter that you know what’s best for her.
Parental rules are made in love and reflect your care and concern. Teens who must abide by rules are lucky and well-loved!