Summer camp couldn't come soon enough this year. We wanted to get our 12-year old son out of the house, away from the neigborhood and into the hills before it was too late.

He was starting to think about "going." And he didn't mean "out." He meant "going steady."

Going steady at 12?

Indeed.

Naively, I fear, I still thought kids made it through elementary school with their hormones on hold. But suddenly I discovered that social status in sixth grade has little to do with merit badges or batting averages. The kids have discovered a new game.

Out of curiosity, I went to my son's school to interview the sub-teen generation about the rules of the game called "going."

"Why can't you go places together without going steady?" I asked.

They looked at me with a scorn usually reserved for their younger brothers and sisters. First you "go"--then you go out. Otherwise, I was told, you are called a "two-timer" and run the risk of "ruining your reputation."

What's more, no damsel worth her Docksiders would dream of doing the asking. Girls still resort to flirting or friendly hints to get the "going" going their way. Some still take the indirect approach: they write their hearts out on the bathroom walls.

Fidelity is a problem for the sixth grade set, just as it is for their elders. "Two-timers" abound. One girl reported that she has gone steady with four different boys eight times.

To foster fidelity, kids at this school get "married." The self-ordained preacher uses a park bench as a pulpit to perform the rite--while reading from a comic book. When asked if he was "married" himself, he looked shocked. "I'm a man of the cloth," he said.

What happens when the "marriages" fail? Sixth graders don't get divorced, they get "dumped." The dumping can take the form of a public denunciation or a private communication. One sixth grader with much experience in these matters suggested sending a note saying, "I really like you but things are not working out." Another told me he told the girl he dumped that his mother wouldn't let him go steady. His credibility suffered somewhat when he began going with another girl two days later.

All these tales of sub-teen romance should seem cute--but the teachers and the principal didn't see it that way. They said they were alarmed by the social pressure and powerless to control it.

The pressure to "go" is quickly followed by the question "How far?" Many kids are caught by their own bravado. The most popular couple at school broke up recently, allegedly because "she was afraid to do anything." Sex had reared its head even before junior high school.

What happens in junior high and high school when the boy-girl pressure starts in sixth grade? One parent of a high schooler explained, "By high school, kids have to go steady because they do so much more than we did physically."

Is it any wonder that I sighed with relief when the camp bus pulled out of town?

Eventually, I know, my son will come home from the hills. But I will have a message for him when he gets off the bus. It is:

"Hell no, you can't 'go.' You may be ready but your mother isn't."