There is a running joke in my family: I’ve often said that when my elder daughter goes out on her first date, I plan to greet the boy at the door wearing a full black Ninja outfit, replete with sword and throwing stars. I shall hand the poor unsuspecting youth a small dagger and instruct him thusly: “Have her home by 10, or use that on yourself…it’s a lot less painful than what I’ll do to you.” My older daughter is 14. Lately, this scenario seems neither funny nor particularly far-fetched.
Most of the dads I know are smart, gentle guys, but there’s clearly some weird protective hormone that gets released in a man when his daughter gets to “that age.” It’s not rational, and certainly not necessarily a reflection of the kid in question – my daughter is the most responsible, together teenager I know (for that matter, she’s actually more responsible and together than most adults I know…) but dads just go a bit ballistic when it comes to dating. Parents (moms, too) quickly forget that they themselves were once teenagers, and wanted to hang out with members of the opposite sex, sans adult supervision. And therein also lies the rub: we remember all the dumb, irresponsible stuff we did, and multiply it by the fact that the world is a much more dangerous place than it was (fill in the blank) many years ago. At this delicate juncture, parents are also forced to confront the fact that the wheel has indeed spun, and you are, like it or not, now acting exactly like your own parents, an event you swore before the living God that made you would never come to pass.
So, here’s the deal: teens are going to date. How they handle themselves, and their capacity to keep out of harm’s way are largely a function of how well their parents have prepared them for that experience, which opens up a world of emotional, physical and perceptual changes in a teenager. What do we as parents do? Talk to them. Honestly. If you inhaled, admit it. If you made mistakes, explain them, as that will go along way towards kyboshing the “well, you did it” argument.
Below are a few practical suggestions for dealing with the dating nightmare, um, issue. Remember that all of these concerns needn’t be discussed in a single conversation, in fact, that’s probably a really bad idea, as most parents, feeling compelled to get all the information out in one sitting, create not a dialogue, but a lecture, and we all know what most kids do, literally and figuratively, when an adult starts lecturing them (ZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzz….).
Set loving limits.
Mr. Rogers said one of the hallmarks of good parents is their ability to set “loving “limits.” Kids may chafe, but loving limits let them know they are cared for. In terms of dating, parents need to make it clear that things like check-in times, curfews, etc. are put into place not due to a lack of trust, but out of reasonable safety concerns. That said, be willing to bend a little, to negotiate, but be clear on where the limits are, and what the consequences are when they get violated. Let them know what will happen if trust is broken; let them know that lying is categorically unacceptable.
Teenagers naturally feel the need for independence, and thus can become reluctant to reveal too many details regarding their social life. Let them know, basically, that they have no choice. You are legally responsible for their safety, and thus you have a right to know were they are going, with whom, the degree of adult supervision, etc.
Let them know you’re there.
Should teenagers find themselves in a uncomfortable or dangerous situation due to the presence of drugs, alcohol, and/or the potential for violence or inappropriate sexual behavior, they need to be able to bail. Keep your cell phone on when your kids are out on a date, at a party, etc. Reassure them that if they feel uncomfortable and wish to leave, they are not wimps, but rather, possessed of superior judgment, of which they should be proud.
Talk about sex.
Look, you’re going to have to, so get over it. Be a man, talk to your son…or daughter…or have your wife do it, especially if you have a house full of girls. I mean, you can be there and nod a lot, but for a teenage girl, it might go over better coming from mom. Joking aside, kids need to be made aware of the dangers of STDs, unwanted pregnancy, etc. They get a lot of this in school, and they talk amongst themselves, so they probably know more than you think they do, but they need to hear it from you. As a parent you (and your spouse/partner) need to be clear on the moral and behavioral code you expect them to follow. Let them know that dating does not equal sex.
Boys and girls are different.
This may sound shockingly politically incorrect, but it’s true. Their physical drives are different, and as are their emotional framework regarding dating and sex. Boys need to learn to be gentlemen. Girls must learn to clear about what they do and do not want and how to articulate those needs. Both genders need to learn to how to avoid being manipulated into a physical or emotional situation that is uncomfortable for them or wherein they are in any way being coerced or taken advantage of.
Know your kid.
Other than the most obvious rules of social decency and comportment, there is no gold standard on how to raise a kid. Each child is unique, and what’s right for one teenager is dead wrong for another. So, as in all things related to parenting, you’re going to have to customize your dating program to suit the needs of your child. This might lead to some conflict, especially if the kid feels he’s being given less freedom and opportunity than his peers, but it is impossible to equate emotional maturity to a numerical age with teenagers. Some are truly young adults, some are still children. Act accordingly.
The ideas presented above can help parents negotiate the often rough waters of teen dating with wisdom, patience and, hopefully, a sense of humor. That said, I’m still keeping the Ninja outfit in the front closet.