I read some texts on my daughter’s phone between her and a boy that obviously mean they’re “going out.” I think sixth grade is way too young to be boyfriend and girlfriend! Am I crazy?
“Boyfriend and girlfriend” are loosely defined terms that scare parents because they can mean so many different things. If I stood two cute sixth graders in front of a room full of parents and told them these kids are “going out,” the parent reactions would range from adoring smiles to cringes to screams of “Noooo!”
The “looseness” of this term means you can imagine it to mean anything, your worst nightmare or your sweetest hope. Rather than defining your child’s social life around a moving target, get specific about what “going out” really means and what aspects, if any, you’ll allow this year.
I’ll help you get specific in a minute, but first, consider this: you have very little power over whom your son or daughter finds attractive, and when that will happen. This is true for friends as much as it is for fledgling romantic relationships.
Because girlfriend/boyfriend issues are so closely tied to friendship issues, let’s look at what’s happening with friend selection in middle school as the foundation for how you might react to romantic relationships.
In middle school, your kid will begin spending more time with people you don’t like. Maybe you’ll know about this and maybe you won’t. (If you’re on social media watching your kid’s accounts, you’ll definitely be more likely to find out.) But what do you do with that information? You may believe another kid to be a bad influence, but resist the urge to ban your child from hanging out with certain kids.
When it comes to your kid’s choices in friends, I suggest you limit activities, not people.
There is no better way to make a kid more appealing than to make him off-limits. If you are not comfortable with another child’s choices or values, but your child wants to be friends with that kid, invite him to your house where you can keep an eye on his influence. It’s not a good idea to say, “You can’t be friends with Will.” It’s more effective to say, “You can’t go roller skating with Will Friday night. You can invite him to go to the movies with us instead.” Offer to sit in another row. If your child questions you on this, be honest. Say something like, “I don’t know Will very well and I’m concerned about some of his behaviors and choices. I need to get to know him better.”
You can avoid the draw of forbidden fruit by allowing your child’s friend into his life on your terms. Not only does banning people backfire, but you could be wrong about the person. Or the friend could change. And your kid will be spending time with him at school, without you, anyway. To modify an old saying, “Keep your child’s sweet friends close. Keep your child’s suspect friends closer.”
Boyfriends and girlfriends are really just an extension of friends. At this age you can say, “You’re not allowed to date,” but unless you’ve been specific with your child about what that means, you could be setting yourself up for failure.
Let’s get specific by defining what “going out” means. You may be the parent who screams “Noooo!” because you’re imagining something different than what your child has in mind.
Would it seem appropriate to you if your daughter:
- Sat next to a boy at lunch?
- Held hands with a boy?
- Called someone her boyfriend but never went out alone with him outside of school?
- Went to the movie with a boy and a parent chaperone?
- Had her first kiss?
You get the idea. Spend some time narrowing down what you do and don’t want her to do, and talk with her about it. Better yet, ask your son or daughter what it means to her to “go out with someone.” When your kid defines “going out” for you, it may alleviate your worry and the need to set a lot of rules. While you’re at it, ask if “going out” is even the right term anymore. If you keep using the wrong term your kid will cringe every time you try to talk about it. What used to be “going steady” evolved to “going out” but now a lot of middle schoolers call it “talking to” someone, which really means texting with someone. You get the idea.
I’m not suggesting you can mandate your kid’s behavior when she’s not with you. But I am certain you can help guide her thinking. One of the reasons parents don’t do this is because it treads into some really uncomfortable territory, namely … budding sexuality. You don’t actually get to circle a date on the calendar when your daughter will start kissing but you can help her consider when, where, and maybe even how it would be appropriate to start down that road. Since that’s about all you can do, I recommend not missing out on your only opportunity to influence this big decision. Bear in mind that most kids kiss for the first time in middle school. That doesn’t mean your kid will kiss in middle school (or for that matter that you need to approve) but you should be honest with yourself about this societal norm.
Lest you should think I’m too flimsy on this subject, let me be clear that you still (mostly) get to decide where your kid goes outside of school time, for how long, under what circumstances, and with whom. What you don’t get to decide is whether or not they make out by the water fountain after third period.
If your son or daughter wants to “go out” or “talk to” someone and that means a little texting back and forth or nervously standing together at the middle school football game, it’s not a big deal. But, if your kid jumps from relationship to relationship or spends a lot of time with a boyfriend or girlfriend at the exclusion of other people, activities, or schoolwork, I would put on the brakes. In a 2013 study1 from the University of Georgia, researchers found that kids who began dating in early middle school and continued with high frequency had worse study skills than their peers and were twice as likely to drink or do drugs later in adolescence. The correlation, researchers believe, is a tendency to be drawn to higher-risk behaviors. Therefore, I would delay unnecessary risk taking for that child as long as possible, especially given that romantic relationships also affect reputations, academics, and friendships.
If your child is not dating habitually, here are some good things to come out of the occasional middle school relationship:
- Having a boyfriend or girlfriend may give your tween some personal and social confidence.
- It gives your child practice in relating to the opposite sex.
- It allows kids to show a different side of their personality to the opposite sex; for example, boys don’t have to play the tough guy and girls get to escape from girl drama.
If your kid wants to have a boyfriend or girlfriend, here are some things you can do:
- Ask your kid what it means to “go out” with someone.
- Accept that this is a natural developmental progression.
- Define the parameters of the situation.
- Put reasonable limits on when and where your child goes with friends.
- Accept that your child will make lots of relationship decisions on his own.
- If your child is willing, talk with her early—before relationships are even on her radar—about what qualities she would look for in a boyfriend and which would be deal breakers.
- Model respectful relationships by pointing out the respectful things your partner does for you, that you see friends doing for each other, or that you see while watching TV or movies. While you’re at it, point out examples of disrespect in relationships, too, so your child will have a gage for what a respectful relationship looks like before he starts dating.