Recently, a friend lightheartedly told me about me the funny T-shirts her husband and his brothers received at a family event. “They said Dads Against Daughters Dating,” she giggled. All the men who received the shirts, including her husband, were fathers of teenage girls.
I couldn’t even fake amusement at this. I cringed on behalf of daughters everywhere. What kind of antiquated message were they hoping to send here? You can’t be trusted, so I’m putting up a wall between you and boys? Maybe, Boys can’t be trusted, so I’m denying them access to you? Or: Some boys can’t be trusted, but my daughter lacks the judgment to figure that out on her own? Alas, my friend just thought the message was cute.
I spent my formative dating years while living under my parents’ roof. That my date had to come to the door to pick me up wasn’t negotiable. It was awkward to warn my dates about this ahead of time, but it gave me practice speaking up about what I needed. When my heart was inevitably broken, I cried to my mom at the kitchen table. When a date wasn’t going as expected, I called my dad to come pick me up. My family helped shape my dating standards and gave me the confidence to stick to them. Then they supported me as I tried them out in real life, even when I made mistakes.
It saddens me to think my friend’s daughter might be denied these opportunities.
But as the mom of two teenage boys who have been relentlessly schooled on how to both give and expect respect in their relationships, it breaks my heart to think that a potential date’s dad already views my boys as the enemy. On top of that, sending your kids the message that dating is wrong seems ripe for a world of both internal and external conflict.
“When you make a statement like Dads Against Daughters Dating, you create fear and shame around normal teenage romantic impulses,” says Ana Homayoun, an educator, speaker and author of several books aimed at helping parents raise healthy, engaged kids in an era dominated by the pressures of social media. “If you’re not allowing kids the opportunities to practice interacting with people they’re attracted to, you’re denying them the opportunity to develop healthy relationship skills.”
Jean Twenge, author of “iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood,” points out that a dad who attempts to prevent his daughter from dating may not only be wasting his efforts, but also may be missing the teaching moment. “As you know, iGen teens are much less likely to date than previous generations were,” Twenge tells me. “This has many advantages — for example, they are also less likely to have sex as high school students. The potential downside, however, is they might arrive at college with little experience with romantic relationships and even less experience with face-to-face social interaction overall. That might make it more difficult to navigate relationships at a time when they are already adjusting to being away from home and their previous support systems.”
Homayoun echoes this point: “If you’re sending your child away to college without those [basic dating] skills, they’re going to learn the hard way — and usually in the presence of alcohol,” she warns. “That’s when kids look toward compensatory behaviors because they don’t possess the skills to conduct a normal relationship. They compensate for their insecurity by interacting only through a [phone] screen, or through the haze of a party or under the influence.”
In other words, “not dating” doesn’t mean “not having sex.” A 2010 study about the prevalence of hookup culture on college campuses shows that men and women have about twice as many intimate experiences as they do first dates.
One college grad told Homayoun that she wished her campus culture had encouraged dating among students. “Now this woman is … trying to date and getting really anxious if something doesn’t go as planned. She’s had plenty of sex, but no practice dating. She feels like everything is high stakes but she has zero skills to deal with it.”
So what does it really mean when kids say they want to “date”? Definitions can vary widely. “Kids might say ‘we’re dating’ or ‘we’re seeing each other,’ but then they don’t even talk to each other in the hallway — they just text at night,” says Homayoun.
Twenge adds that when teens conduct the early stages of relationships online rather than in person, “it can place a lot of emphasis on physical appearance, particularly for girls. Research on self-objectification shows this is not a good formula for mental health. Online interaction can also be anxiety-provoking because it’s not in real time (‘Why didn’t he text me back yet?’). And if online communication involves sending nude photos, that creates a long list of issues — those photos virtually never stay on the phone of the boy who received them.”
Because much of the conversation online lacks the spontaneity of in-person interactions, it hampers kids’ abilities to pick up on body language, conversational nuances and facial cues. “If kids are never hanging out together in real life but they think they’re dating, they’re not modeling a healthy relationship,” Homayoun says. “By being involved, parents can help set the family values for what is appropriate and important. And if you don’t give guidelines, kids come up with their own.”
While the idea of our kids developing romantic interests can be uncomfortable for parents to deal with, it’s more important to seize the opportunity to talk to them about positive, pro-social relationships, says Homayoun. Instead of patently discouraging dating, Homayoun suggests that parents talk to their teens about what dating looks like to them. “It doesn’t have to be about going to a club or sending them out into the night. It can be going to a coffee shop, planning a daytime activity, spending time getting to know each other.”
Establishing that dating is verboten, even before your kid might be thinking about it, sets the stage for avoidance once those feelings do emerge. And what happens then? “They go underground,” Homayoun observes, having witnessed teens’ online habits firsthand. “They conduct their relationship in secret or online only. It’s not like 30 years ago when parents knew who was calling the house. Kids are conducting relationships on their smartphones in the privacy of their rooms, in the middle of the night, as they’re walking to school. Parents need to be aware that when a hidden relationship ends and kids are overwhelmed, that feeling of being heartbroken can be both devastating and also dangerous.”
So if your daughter expresses an interest in going on a date, she should be able to have a conversation with you about it without feeling judged. “Give your kids permission to say things out loud, ask questions, define what feels safe and comfortable for them in a dating relationship, talk with you about what’s appropriate,” says Homayoun. For parents, this may mean holding our tongues when our ideas get challenged, but it can lay the groundwork for a strong relationship with our kids down the road. This can be your moment to have those critical conversations about safe sex, consent and what constitutes sexual assault.
We don’t have to wait until they’re teens to start supporting our kids on the path to developing healthy romantic relationships. This can happen on the playground, in preschool. “There’s a teasing that happens with kids when they’re friends with someone of the opposite sex after a certain age,” Homayoun says. “When boys and girls play together and adults say things like, ‘Oh, they’re such a cute couple,’ it makes kids uncomfortable and sends the message that having friends of the opposite sex means they’re romantically interested.” In other words, if the core of every healthy romance is friendship, then allowing kids to form platonic friendships encourages the skills that build that foundation.
This is not to say that parents should push their kids into romance. “Not all teens are ready for dating, but parents can help them find ways to be appropriately social and independent in varying degrees,” says Homayoun. “They can offer kids the opportunity to rewrite the social script. They can help change the culture so kids have space to take healthy risks, be vulnerable, interact face to face” — and know that their parents have their backs when it doesn’t go as perfectly as they planned.
Adrienne Wichard-Edds writes about parenting and cultural issues. Follow her on Twitter @WichardEdds.