Monday, March 28, 2016

I don't want my middle schooler to date, but I don't have a rule against it.

Last week I was asked to go on Let's Talk Live (a local, live TV show here in DC) to talk about teens and dating, specifically about younger teens. It forced me to think about it which I really, really didn't want to do to. When it comes to my kids actually dating, I prefer to be over here, rocking in the corner like this:


But the fact remains that I have two tweens careening towards adolescence and some deep thinking on this subject was overdue. I'm not saying I have it right, but this is where I'm at with tweens and dating. My philosophy on this whole thing boils down one basic thing:

I don't want my middle schooler to date, but I don't have a rule against it. This might sound counter-intuitive but it's not - I swear.  Some of the best parents I know, even really religious parents who expect their kids to honor their faith and save sex for marriage, don't have a ban on dating. Why? Because tweens and young teens are going to have romantic feelings, whether we like it or not. It's part of growing up and moreover, it's developmentally appropriate. No matter how much I may want to freeze time, I can't stop this train.

Having a conversation about dating doesn't mean the answer is yes. Just to be clear, I'm pretty strict. Keeping the conversation open doesn't mean my kids get to run around doing whatever they want. It means our expectations are 100% clear and our rules about responsible, respectful behavior don't change just because a boyfriend or girlfriend is in the picture. It means we talk about the hard stuff: how you should expect to be treated, how you should treat others, and what it means when you trust someone with your feelings.

Let's be specific about what we mean by "dating".  A very smart friend of mine is a recent high school graduate and she describes most middle and younger high school relationships as "locker dating".  That means that kids are meeting up at their lockers, eating lunch together, texting after school, and maybe - but not always - getting together with groups of friends. I might not want my kids to be dating yet, but these are entirely age appropriate behaviors. These are not things my kids should feel they have to lie about.

You know what scares me more than a 7th grade boyfriend? Lying about it.  I've seen awesome kids from close, loving families lie to their parents about dating. They knew it wouldn't be a conversation, because the boyfriend ban effectively shut down any discussion before it could start. What struck me most about this was the fact that these kids weren't even really doing anything wrong, but they still felt they had to lie about it. That's honestly what I'm most afraid of because once a kid starts sneaking around, it can very easily lead to more (and worse) decisions.

The way I see it, our kids have two choices. They can deal with these challenges about dating and drinking and peer pressure in the dark (lying, sneaking around, making mistakes, and doing things that they're scared to tell you about) or they can deal with them in the light (with boundaries, clear expectations, and the knowledge that we're keeping an eye on them and have their back).

I want to establish rules that encourage honesty, caution, and communication - especially with the hard stuff like relationships, friendship, drugs, alcohol, peer pressure, social media, and bullying. These things are part of our kids' reality as they grow into young adults and they need our help to navigate them. I can't afford to be checked out on any of it. If my kid asks me for a Snapchat account, I will learn about Snapchat before making a decision.* If my kid wants to start dating, I will talk to him about exactly what that means before saying yes or no. I want to empower my kids to make healthy choices and the best way I know to do that is for their dad and I to be part of the conversation.

*I said no to Snapchat (for now) because I am the meanest and the worst.

Beverly Goldberg is my spirit animal & my sister wife.
This whole "open conversation" thing should come in handy when things eventually do go pear-shaped. Kids are going to push limits, make mistakes, screw things up, and behave badly. They just will. But hopefully, knowing you're there and ready to talk (even after a mild/medium meltdown - which is my speciality) will help kids feel like they can admit when they've made mistakes and ask for support in coming back from them. That's what we all want for them, right? To be able to learn from their mistakes and be resilient in the face of failure?

This is the message I will send my kids about all the hard stuff: respect yourself and others and know that we love you more than anything. I talk to my kids about respect and consent to a degree that is profoundly annoying for them, and my son and daughters get the exact same message. The flip side of that message is being constantly smothered by my love and the knowledge that I'm there for them no matter what. I want them to care enough about themselves to make good choices, or failing that  - not to make really stupid ones.

Middle school and high school are HARD and the pressure they deal with is ridiculous. There will come a time when it feels like the world is trying to tear them down and I WILL BE THERE WHEN THAT HAPPENS. I will be wearing a Beverly Goldberg sweater, reminding them how much they're loved and valued. I'm sure they will hate it, but too bad for them. It's happening.

This is all a big trust exercise.  I'm pretty much terrified every time I send my kids out into the world to do anything. Letting them get on the bus in the morning is a trust exercise for me. But the bottom line is that by the time your kid is in 8th grade, your 5 year plan includes them becoming an adult. This might sound obvious to you but it was an epiphany for me. I'm now in a race against a firm deadline to make sure that my oldest daughter can handle all of these things with me and without me.

We are going to keep the conversation open and make decisions together. We're going to be brutally honest about the consequences of bad choices and the reasons why we make good ones (even if they are lamer and less fun). By doing this together now, hopefully my kids will learn how to do it for themselves. In the very near future, my babies are going to be out there on their own. Gulp.

This post is sponsored by Ask Listen Learn, encouraging families to talk to their kids about saying YES to a healthy lifestyle and NO to underage drinking. All the opinions are my own because no one is the boss of me. 

(c) Mommyland Blogs 2013-2016

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