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Set rules, talk before teen starts dating

Dear Mr. Dad: My 14-year-old daughter is obsessed with the idea that she needs to start dating. She says “all of her friends” are doing it and feels left out. She just seems too young. I don’t think anyone – boy or girl – should start till at least 16. I want to tell her “over my dead body,” but I also don’t want to be that dad. What can I do?

A: As the father of three – two of whom made it through their teen years without getting pregnant (the third is only 10 and I’m confident she’ll do the same) – I feel your pain. The very idea of your little girl, alone with a boy, can bring up all sorts of emotions, headlined by anger (“Boys that age have only one thing on their mind.”) and worry (How can I possibly protect her?”).

Let’s start with the “only-one-thing-on-their-mind” idea. Do you really believe that? TV, movies, and the Internet put a lot of pressure on teens to have as much sex as they can as often as they can, with as many different people as possible. But the reality is that the majority of boys your daughter’s age are petrified of girls, and what’s most likely on their mind is, “I’m hungry.”

As far as the “how-can-I-protect-her” idea, you have two things going for you. First, your daughter herself doesn’t sound like she’s all that into it and just wants to date because everyone else is. By telling you that, she’s almost begging you to say “No.” Second, even if dating were her idea, you’re right: 14 is too young for serious one-on-one dating.

That said, you can’t just play the tough guy and expect her to be happy about it. In fact, the more forcefully you forbid dating, the more you’ll push her towards it. Here’s what to do instead.

• Really talk to her. You have a wonderful opportunity here. Your daughter actually came to you with a problem. That says a huge amount (in a good way) about your relationship. Ask her to tell you more about the dating her friends are doing, the pressure she feels, and what she actually means by “dating” (you might be thinking, “dinner, movie, make out in the back seat of the car”; she might be thinking “hold hands and share an ice cream cone”). Listen carefully and don’t be judgmental. When you sense an opportunity, talk to her about the dangers of dating, including violence. Talk about relationships, sex and the finances involved. You’re not going to wrap this up in one conversation, so take it a step at a time.

• Establish some dating rules. Number one is that group dates are OK, one-on-one dates are not. End of story. Group dates let her be with the boy who makes her blush, but in a setting where inappropriate behavior is a lot less likely.

• Tag along. In my view, groups of young teens shouldn’t be out and about without an adult nearby – there’s too much opportunity for things to go wrong. And if you want your daughter to see how serious you are, be the chaperone. Don’t be right in the middle of the group or try to be everyone’s buddy – that would only embarrass your daughter. Instead, walk half a block behind and sit a few rows away in the movie. But be there. Watch carefully, and let her enjoy herself.



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