Dad Reflects: Are Kids Dating Too Young?
Sometimes I feel like I'm going to be a scared, old man shaking my fist at the confusing world before I turn 40. The question I recently heard is this: "Should I let my 7-year-old daughter have a sleepover with her 10-year-old boyfriend?" I really don't know where to start with this one. Am I taking crazy pills?
Talk about burying the lead, right?. I'm not positive, but I think his first question should have been "should my 7-year-old daughter have a 10-year-old boyfriend?" I never really knew it was up for debate, but I don't think kids should say they are dating when they're seven, or ten for that matter.
I know, I know - they're just pretending, and it's healthy to play house, and dating doesn't mean the same thing you think it means, and you're projecting, and yada, yada, yada. I get it. Believe me. Playing house in the backyard is cool beans. But that's not what I'm talking about at all. Things are legitimately different lately.
Pairing Off at a Young Age
Kids are "pairing off" in school far too young, and they're doing it oftentimes because they think they are "supposed" to, and almost always because of peer pressure.
There is a big difference between how they are indefinitely labeling themselves as boyfriends and girlfriends these days and playing house in the backyard for an afternoon. If you think it's all make-believe to them, you haven't been paying close enough attention. Somewhere along the line kids have forgotten that they are supposed to be conscious that they are pretending to be dating.
Kids are already unhealthily defining themselves by who they're romantically paired off with in elementary school. By middle school it can sometimes basically be the only topic of conversation. And it's definitely stressing out a bunch of kids who still want to be kids.
Do you mind if I pause to shake my confused fist at the scary world for a second? How come the only thing on the Disney Channel these days is middle school kids dealing with drama? Doesn't Disney own the rights to some pretty famous cartoons? Ok, just making sure, thanks. Back to the question.
Societal Expectations for Our Kids
Kids are bombarded with advertising and gender norms and societal expectations and peer pressure from a very young age. Can't we all just agree to give them a break for crying out loud? Luckily, there are many parents who still try to protect their kids from such harmful messages. The recent success of beautiful picture books like Pink Is For Boys and Julián Is a Mermaid are sure signs of that.
But the strangest part of this epidemic of kids growing up too fast is that there are some parents who actually press these expectations on their kids from a very young age. They take their elementary school kids on dates, help them buy presents for boyfriends and girlfriends, and dress them up like adults for dances.
Kids really latch onto these expectations for "how people should be" and "how people should look", and it's basically the most powerful fuel for peer pressure and bullying in kids I've ever seen. Little boys that tell other little boys they aren't allowed to wear pink don't just grow on trees. It’s definitely learned behavior.
Can the Peer-Pressure be Avoided?
If my 7-year-old daughter came home and asked if she could have a sleepover with her 10-year-old boyfriend, I would not feel conflicted about whether or not to allow the sleepover. I would probably have an existential crisis worrying about the environment that she is spending her childhood in. But, thankfully, I think this situation can be avoided.
Kids are much smarter than we sometimes give them credit for. I believe that sometimes we can be more honest than we think we can. We need to have more conversations with our kids, and expose them to more thoughts and experiences.
It might look like this:
Kid: “What is marriage, Dad?”
Dad: ”Marriage is something that people do when they want to spend the rest of their lives together. They come from different families and decide to become their own family.”
Kid: ”What is dating, Dad?”
Dad: ”Before marriage people have boyfriends or girlfriends and go on dates. They like to spend time together and they may decide to get married and become a family.”
Young kids are very interested in that kind of knowledge, and they can certainly understand it. And they are perfectly capable of quickly comprehending that dating is not something young kids are supposed to do, or really have any need for.
Similarly to the way I don't have to forbid beer or coffee for my 5-year-old - it's simply a daddy drink - I don't foresee having to forbid my 7 or 8-year-old from dating. They can understand (very innocently) that it's simply not something kids actually do, and that in no way ruins the innocence of their childhood.
In fact, I would argue that it helps to preserve childhood. Hopefully, they will be more knowledgeable and self-confident - and much less likely to be convinced by their friends (or a 10-year-old boy) that they are supposed to have a boyfriend or girlfriend.
It’s impossible to control the negative trends of society, but that just means it’s that much more important that we prepare our kids for some of the weird things they are going to encounter. If we make sure our kids are kind and confident and clever - most things will really take care of themselves. But that doesn’t let society off the hook either. Hopefully the next trend in society is helping kids be kids just a tad longer.
Would your head explode if your 7-year-old girl asked to spend the night with her 10-year-old boyfriend? When do kids start dating at your kids’ school? Please let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.