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Talking to Kids About Dating in a Non-Dating World

Do the old rules of romance still apply?

Before I actually had a daughter, I imagined I’d be cool with the whole dating thing. You know, a tiny bit formal, ask the young man (or the young woman if my daughter turned out to date girls as well) a few probing but non-threatening questions, let them both know about the curfew, and refrain from kissing my daughter good-bye. (There was a girl I dated in high school whose father always kissed her goodbye before she left on a date with me. I couldn’t shake the idea that he was somehow threatening me with that kiss, and it made the rest of the night, at least for me, uncomfortably awkward. I’m guessing that was his point.)

But now I have two daughters. When they were younger, I had changed my tune a bit. I am aware that this change of heart is a time-honored cliché, but I am powerless to resist these feelings no matter how hackneyed they seem.

When my daughters were younger, I imagined the first young man hoping to date one of my daughters coming to the doorstep and ringing the doorbell. I imagined greeting him, and, for the sake of menace, I would have practiced all day how to smoke just one cigarette. That way, after we’d shake hands, I’d slowly let the smoke drift out of my nostrils. Then I’d smile and tell him that I expect my daughter home by, oh, I dunno, maybe 8?

Look. I’m 5’6”. I’m gonna need props to be intimidating…

But here’s what I didn’t plan. I didn’t plan on what I’m told is more likely to happen. I didn’t plan on my daughter someday receiving a text that says, super-romantically, something dreamy, like, “Yo, you busy? Wanna hang out?”

That’s so unfair! It circumvents entirely the tradition of dad’s who have their whole married lives practiced for the scaring-of-the-boyfriend-intervention since the birth of their daughters. It’s like we went to scaring practice every day from the time our daughters were born, and still we never get to play the game.

Let me first set the record straight. I’m not going to smoke anything or blow any smoke out of my nose. My oldest daughter (the one of dating age) has not received to my knowledge any such texts.

But still, I suppose this lengthy prelude speaks to the anxiety that parents are feeling as they try to make sense of a world where dating is increasingly not a “thing people do.”

Here are some ideas to play with. According to a piece in the Wall Street Journal in 2007 :

-Formal dances, all around the US, are fading from existence. No one goes. Kids still go out with each on the evening of the planned event, and they might even rent the tux or buy the dress. They just eschew the dance itself. They’re more likely to travel in packs to somebody’s basement, and there’s generally less oversight in a basement than at a dance.

-A fascinating paper from the Archives of Sexual Research published in 2009 showed that among college students at Michigan State, so called “friends with benefits” (that is, a sexual relationship absent even the pretense or romance) were popular precisely because they avoided the messy entanglements of romantic feelings.

-That same study showed that while 60% of 125 students surveyed had had relatively random and deliberate “hook-ups” (read: sexual relations), 9 out of 10 of these encounters didn’t end in a lasting relationship.

-While there appears to be a desire for romantic engagement, there is also increasing cluelessness with regard to how to effect these engagements. In other words, young men and women, from teen into adulthood, WANT to be wooed, but they seem to lack the template on how to make that happen.

So, here we are again, we graying and aging parents, trying to raise our kids in the shiny present tense through the now antiquated rules of our hard-earned past.

Except that those rules probably aren’t as antiquated as they seem. As I noted above, both boys and girls would like a bit more romance. There’s certainly no shortage of romantic comedies, after all. And, interestingly, Hollywood doesn’t market to what we DON’T want when it comes to relationship. Hollywood tends to favor either cautionary tales or examples of how we’d like things to be. The movies that have very explicitly dealt with the concept of “friends with benefits” have almost exclusively portrayed courtship even when the couple of interest doesn’t end up together. I could rattle off those movies, but that’s the subject of another post. For now, I’d like to offer some talking points. These talking points will inevitably yield blushing and protests if you should chose to discuss them with your children, but then who doesn’t remember fondly blushing through one of these talks and then later realizing the wisdom of what parents had to say.

-Romance, courtship, taking it slow…however you want to phrase it…is good. It feels good. I’m not talking about the man holding the door for the girl. That DOES seem a bit old fashioned (though I still smile whenever I see this). I’m talking about the mutual respect and admiration and anxiety that go into learning about someone with whom you have a romantic interest. I’m talking about learning to talk and, perhaps even more importantly, learning to listen. Simply reminding your child to listen to his or her date (if a date should appear) is a great place to start.

-“Hooking up” actually doesn’t always feel that good. That’s also been studied. It’s awfully hard, given the feelings that are stirred up through sexual intimacy, to have sex and then to have it mean next to nothing. Many of us have done just that, and probably our kids will also, but it makes sense to remind our kids of how this experience might leave them feeling.

-Given the lack of dating that is increasingly becoming the norm, if your teen finds him or herself on an honest to goodness date, that poor kid might not have the slightest idea how to act. Here’s where I’d do two things.

1. Remind your terrified child that neither did any of us when we dated. Every date is different, every person is different, and feeling terrified or anxious makes sense.

2. Offer concrete examples of how to behave. See the movie before dinner. Then you’ll have something to talk about. Be aware of when you’re talking too much, and let your date talk too. If he or she is reticent, ask questions. Be curious.

-Don’t be too permitting. That’s creepy. Don’t be the parent who says that she’ll stay out of the bedroom when the kids are home and that they can therefore do whatever they want. (Yeah, that happens more than you’d think.) I’ve talked to plenty of kids who don't WANT that kind of permission. It’s confusing and unsettling. Tell your child and his or her date that you expect them both to behave responsibly. They’ll know what you mean.

Look. Just because it doesn’t seem that your kids are dating, you should know that they are still engaging in social relationships for which these old rules apply. You can and should be part of this process. After all, how’re they going to know what to teach their kids?

Steve Schlozman is the associate director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital and the author of the horror novel, The Zombie Autopsies. His next novel comes out later this fall.

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