The Rules for Romance in Teen Dating
By Michelle Jeffers

You knew the day would come. Your pig-tailed tomboy lost her baby fat and bears a dangerous resemblance to Britney Spears. Or your Little Leaguer smells suspiciously like dad’s cologne and actually cares about his clothes. Your kids are ready to date. But how do you give them their freedom without losing some semblance of control? Experts on teen behavior weigh in with advice on how to listen, how to back off and how to set boundaries.

In elementary school, dating is rarely more than a gussied up play-date. By middle school, it's something to do to bug your parents. And by high school, many couples sustain dating that lasts longer than the average college relationship. From precocious puppy love in fourth grade to serious intimacy in high school, there are few topics that raise more anxiety questions for parents than dating.

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10 Teen Dating Tips

"Kids really need our support to engage in dating," said Dr. Lynn Ponton, M.D., a University of California, San Francisco child psychiatrist and author of the book, The Sex Lives of Teenagers: Revealing the Secret World of Adolescent Boys and Girls (Plume, $13). "It's real important that kids date. It builds social skills, it helps lessen isolation and it helps them relate to people … such as how to be intimate and how to be friends before having sex."

Not only is dating a natural progression for adolescents, it's a critical factor in preparing them for the adult world. "Most people don't want their kids to marry their first boyfriend or girlfriend in life," said Dr. Mike Riera, Ph.D, former dean of students at Marin Academy in San Rafael, host of the syndicated radio show "Family Talk with Dr. Mike" and author of several books on teen-agers including Uncommon Sense for Parents with Teenagers (Celestial Arts, $14). He says teen dating is really practice for future adult relationships.

The question most parents want to know is when they should allow their child to date. And whether it occurs any earlier in our society, especially as children today are bombarded by media images of dating and sexuality.

Speaking the Lingo
Perhaps the first thing parents need to know is that the term dating is hopelessly out of date. "Teens are put off by the term," said Ponton, and prefer to say "hooking up." But they don't mean it in the sexual way that the term has become commonly associated with. They use it as a euphemism for "hanging out." In this way, teens try to maintain a carefree attitude about the whole aspect of relationships and dating.  Some parents would do well to consider that attitude themselves.

Kids may say they have a boyfriend or girlfriend, but parents can save themselves much anxiety if they simply asked their child what they mean by that label. In elementary and middle school, it often translates into little more than having someone to walk to class with, or talk with on the phone.

Children as early as kindergarten claim to be "in love" with classmates in that "boyfriend-girlfriend" way. But experts say that generally fades away until fifth- or sixth-grade, when girls' romantic interests reawaken.

To really find out what’s going on with teen dating, we asked a teen who has had an active social life since age 13. Jessie 18, a senior at a private high school in San Francisco, who asked that we not use her last name, says that at this age, boys and girls mainly hang out as friends, calling each other on the phone or going over to the other's house to watch movies or listen to music. Occasionally, there would be kissing. "It's really more of a play-date, but girls would pretend its fantastic dating."

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In fact, said Jessie, very few boys seemed to be as concerned with girls, as girls are with boys, until about tenth-grade. There is a great difference in maturity levels, agrees Janet Parker, a
San Francisco mother of a high-school-age son and another in college

She recalled attending a recent bar mitzvah where the disparity was striking. The girls were dressed to the nines in mature, sexy gowns. "They were looking to slow dance and the boys were more interested in sword fighting with the toy plastic guitars handed out by the band."

Jessie said the first "real dates" can start to occur around seventh- or eigth-grade, often between younger girls and older boys. Generally, she adds, dating in San Francisco coincides with transportation – the age your parents will let you ride public transportation by yourself. (Parents might be interested to know that Teen Magazine voted San Francisco as one of the best cities for teen dating because of its good public transportation and its varied social groups.)

The experts say the right age for dating really depends on the person. There are ninth- graders who are mature enough to date, and 12th-graders who are not. As for dating among different age groups, Riera suggested parents use a simple rule, framing it around driving age. If one of the teen-agers is far from driving age, around eight-grade, and the other is already driving or learning to, around 10th-grade, that is probably too big a gap for dating.

Intimacy Doesn’t Mean Sex
Personally, Riera said he doesn't think kids should date in middle school. He suggests that adolescents shouldn't be allowed to date until their parents' know they understand what intimacy is. In the classical sense, it's the feeling that another person's well-being means as much to you as your own.

"In this sense, parents of 6-year-olds are getting their kids ready to date when they talk to them about friendships and what makes a good friend and how they feel about loyal friends." Otherwise, said Riera, "If they don't understand intimacy, they get curious about sex in an attempt to find intimacy."

Ponton noted that there is not really an earlier progression into dating nowadays, despite how it might seem in the media and to parents. The numbers really stabilized back in the 1950s and 1960s. Pre-dating occurs between the ages of 12-15 years and evolves into more serious dating in the late teens. Sexual activity has also remained stable for some 50 years, with about half of all 16-year-olds regardless of gender or race, losing their virginity that year.

In fact, it's not much different than when parents were that age. "Every parent has all they need to know just by remembering what they were like at that age," Riera said, adding with a laugh. “For some parents, this memory might scare them. For others, it might put them to sleep.”

Kids Are Curious Earlier

It is important to note that Planned Parenthood Golden Gate, which offers a range of educational workshops for children, teen-agers and parents in Marin,
Sonoma, San Francisco and San Mateo counties, does report that younger and younger teen-agers are asking questions about sexual activity surrounding dating. They want to know about kissing, petting, and oral and anal sex. "It doesn't mean they're doing it, but they are curious earlier," said spokeswoman Erin Brooks.

A valuable offering from Planned Parenthood is its one-on-one or group workshops for parents, giving them reminders about development changes, puberty, peer pressure and cliques. "It's been very successful," said Brooks. "We ask parents to go back and remember what it was like for them and think about how they can make it easier for their kids."

Parenting experts and teen-agers alike say one of the best ways to communicate with your teen-ager about dating is to seize the opportunity to talk about your own experiences at that age. "It really depends on the timing. Most of the time, it probably falls on deaf ears. Parents need one-liners more than long stories," offered Riera. But he also suggests bringing up the topic in the car, when you have a more captive audience.

Eighteen-year-old Jessie concurred. "It's a good idea to tell your kid about the mistakes you made. As long as you don't tell the story 20 times, they'll listen."

"Listen for their receptivity," added Ponton, "You can overwhelm teen-agers with too much of a story."  But equally as important is listening to their stories, Ponton said. Parents may not want to listen to all those, 'who did this and who said what,' kind of stories. "Parents turn it off not realizing that this is communication. This is the nature of middle school and young teens' communication, to tell repetitive stories about their peers."

Knowing When to Listen
The best thing for parents to do is to listen, be nonjudgmental, emphasize safety and try to get your points across during these conversations. "If the kids aren't talking to you at all, you're not going to be able to do that," she added.

Of course, there is also the need to know when to remain quiet. Parker said there is great value in biting your tongue especially when you don't like the person your teen-ager is dating. "You don't want to push them together in a Romeo and Juliet situation," she said.

Parents shouldn't pry too much, suggested Jessie. And they should be careful what they say about the person their son or daughter is dating. A seemingly innocuous comment from a parent that they approve of this date, could end the relationship for some teens.  

"Middle school dating is all about pissing off your parents," Jessie added. On the other hand, a similar comment might cause another teen-ager to continue dating someone in order to avoid disappointing a parent. Seems that either way, parents need to be careful about the judgments they pass on in their teens' social life.

There is an important lesson for parents in knowing when these dating relationships are serious and when they are not, Ponton said. "By the time kids are in high school, dating is about them– not about us as parents.  The average teen relationship lasts 18 months, making it longer than the average college relationships. These are real relationships and we should not belittle them."


Dr. Mike Riera, Uncommon Sense for Parents with Teenagers (Celestial Arts, $14).
Family Talk with Dr. Mike, syndicated radio show, 2-3 p.m., Monday through Friday, go to to hear the show. Also appears monthly on CBS The Saturday Early Show. Go to for more information.

Dr. Lynn Ponton, The Sex Lives of Teenagers: Revealing the Secret World of Adolescent Boys and Girls (Plume, $13).

Planned Parenthood Golden Gate, 815 Eddy Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, CA 94109; 415-441-7858, Offers workshops in reproduction, sex education, puberty, peer pressure, and sexual decision-making, taught to approximately 30,000 youths ages 8-18 and their parents each year. Serves Alameda, Marin, Sonoma, San Francisco and San Mateo counties. E-mail:; Go to for a list of workshops and classes.

From Bay Area Parent, a United Parenting Publication, April 2003.