Remember your own fifth-grade rumor mill? The buzz surrounding classmates who were going out? Decades later, I still wonder about this gossip. Did this mean my friends were kissing during recess, riding bikes together after school, or just liking each other from a comfortable and benign distance? If I am musing upon this now, imagine how quizzical I am about my own two daughters and their landscape of dating.
When children ask permission to date, parents need to seek the truth underlying their request, says sexuality educator Amy Johnson.
“If you asked 50 people the definition of dating, you’d receive 50 different answers. Ask [kids] what they mean by dating and why they want to date. Conversations help us understand what our kids are seeking through dating,” says Johnson. These initial talks bloom into critical discussions about intimacy as our kids grow into young adults.
Of course, the notion of discussing intimacy with a fifth-grader is why parents wonder how young is too young to date. Cue sexuality educator Jo Langford’s three definitions of dating, which coincide with developmental, and sometimes overlapping, stages.
“Stage one [fifth–seventh grades] is pre-dating, with kids playing at interaction with minimal hanging out. Little ‘d’ dating [seventh–ninth grades] is going on proper dates. Big ‘D’ dating [10th grade and up] is getting into more committed relationship territory,” says Langford, who notes there are always outliers who start stages earlier or later.
Presented below is a deeper dive into tween and teenage dating, including information on how parents can guide their children.
First stage — pre-dating
It’s natural for parents to panic when their 10-year-old child announces they want to date, says sexuality educator Greg Smallidge. “Every young person is exploring what healthy relationships feel like, whether or not they are dating. Within their friendships, they are beginning to understand what it means to be close to someone outside of their families,” he says.
Dating at this age is an extension of that exploration. Friends of Smallidge shared with him that their fifth-grader asked to have a date. Through talking with their son, they realized a date for him meant having a picnic at a greenbelt next to their house.
“Rather than overreact, they realized their kid was ready to begin dating. They provided bumpers and gentle guidance for that level of dating to go well. Their kid got to experience what he said he was ready for, in a positive way,” says Smallidge.
If we think of dating as an opportunity to see what it’s like for our kid to settle into being with someone, adds Smallidge, we can provide guidance through the stories we tell about our own experiences in this arena. Getting comfortable with someone takes some time. Compare your own awkward, curious, scary and exciting early forays into dating to the shiny and bright media representations that our kids see every day. Do they know first kisses aren’t always “Love, Simon”–like moments with a Ferris wheel ride and cheering friends? Or that your brother witnessed your not-so-stellar and very unexpected first kiss after your first group date?
Second stage — little ‘d’ dating
This sharing of stories preps our kids for little-d dating, which happens in the late middle school and early high school years. These are actual dates — perhaps dinner and a movie — that occur either in groups or one-on-one.
Now’s the time to up your game when it comes to talking about relationships, and that includes all types of relationships: family, friends and romantic partnerships. Langford is a huge fan of families watching media together (from “Veronica Mars” reruns to your kid’s favorite YouTubers) and talking about the books our kids are reading.
Now more than ever, it’s important to be intentional about talking about relationships. If we don’t, they are getting messages about these topics from somewhere else.
“Using media can help kids a lot. They find fictional or real role models that help them figure out things like how they want to dress and how to stand up for themselves, too. When we see or read about someone else’s journey, it helps us navigate similar journeys,” says Langford. The brain is better prepared for situations if it’s already rehearsed similar situations through media exposure and conversations with parents. There’s an actual phrase for how caregivers walk kids through future situations: anticipatory guidance.
Johnson seconds this idea, while adding in some Instagram homework. “Youth often make a decision based on what they think someone else thinks they should be doing. Provoke your kids to really ponder what everybody else is really thinking and doing, and how that’s different from what they see on social media,” says Johnson. She asks the students she teaches: What in your life is not on Instagram? What are you not seeing online because no one ever posts a picture of it?
Relationship modeling starts from the moment we become parents, says Johnson, as we show affection, have disagreements, set boundaries and communicate with our children. “It’s important to think out loud. Say, ‘I’m setting this boundary about your cell phone because you need to be sleeping instead of texting at [midnight]. This isn’t easy for me because I care about you, and it’s hard to take something from you,’” says Johnson.
Then we take it a step further and ask them if someone they care about has done something that made them uncomfortable, explains Johnson. And don’t forget to ask them their solution to this uncomfortable situation. “Now more than ever, it’s important to be intentional about talking about relationships. If we don’t, they are getting messages about these topics from somewhere else,” says Johnson.
Stage three — big ‘D’ dating
All that conversation — during brief interludes in the car, while watching media or at the dinner table — sets our kids up for age 16. That’s the age Langford feels most teens are ready for, gulp, big-D dating: one-on-one relationships that involve intimacy.
“By age 16, many kids have enough brain development, experience, self-awareness and insight needed to make informed choices when it comes to intimacy and relationship development, maintenance and repair,” says Langford. “I like to say you’re ready when your head, heart and crotch are all in sync. Sometimes people aren’t ready for this until age 26.”
Of course, some kids experience this type of dating at a younger age. But all the relationship-building leading up to this age serves your children as they begin big-D dating. “If you can talk about what dating means when they’re younger, it makes it easier to talk about ‘what I do and don’t want to do with my body’ when that time arrives,” says Johnson.
If you’re worried about making sure these conversations around intimacy are perfect, Johnson counters with the fact that these talks, by their very nature, stimulate critical thinking skills and brain scaffolding. “It’s more important to have conversations about relationships than to get to the right answers. Leave room for kids to offer their own ideas, too,” counsels Johnson.
And if your kid has no interest in talking with you about this stuff? Smallidge offers up a tactic that worked for his family. In exchange for giving his oldest son permission to date, he handwrote question prompts about creating close relationships and asked his son to answer them.
“He blew me away with how thoughtful his responses were. What I wish I understood sooner was the degree of privacy and independence he wanted,” says Smallidge. “I learned a lesson in honoring [some of] his desire to not share with me, and he came to understand that part of my job as his dad was to help make sure his dating relationships stayed healthy. He wasn’t on his own — quite yet.”
Resources for Parents and Teens
Books can be a great way to bolster an ongoing family dialogue about sexual and social health topics and provide kids navigating the dating landscape with readily accessible (and trusted) expert information.
Recommended titles for parents:
“The Sex Lives of Teenagers: Revealing the Secret World of Adolescent Boys and Girls” by Lynn Ponton, M.D.
Recommended titles for young adults:
“Dating Smarts: What Every Teen Needs to Date, Relate or Wait” by Amy Lang, M.A.
“Spare Me ‘The Talk’! A Guy’s Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Growing Up” by Jo Langford, M.A.
“Spare Me ‘The Talk’! A Girl’s Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Growing Up” by Jo Langford, M.A.
“The Pride Guide: A Guide to Sexual and Social Health for LGBTQ Youth” by Jo Langford, M.A.
Recommended websites and classes:
Scarleteen: A grassroots education and support organization and website that presents inclusive, comprehensive and supportive sexuality and relationship information for teens and emerging adults. (It also has a parenting section!)
Great Conversations classes: For over 25 years, Great Conversations has offered classes to preteens, teens and their families on puberty, sexuality, communication, decision-making and other important topics surrounding adolescents.
Amy Lang's Birds + Bees + Kids: Workshops, books and resources for taking the sting out of talking to kids about the birds and the bees.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in January 2019, and updated in February 2020.