Parents may have different ideas about when a child is old enough to date.
But no matter the age, our kids are being bombarded by images of romance, from television, radio—even the aisles of heart-shaped candy boxes at the drugstore.
And not all of those messages are good, says parenting expert Vicki Hoefle, author of The Straight Talk on Parenting: A No-Nonsense Approach on How To Grow a Grown-Up. Too often, she says, the message kids get about romance is that “someone is interested in me and I am special. And now I have to maintain my specialness, by being the kind of person you want me to be.”
So what messages can parents give kids, as an alternative?
At elementary age, Hoefle says, the conversation should be about the importance of deep friendship. “That’s the foundation of relationships that are healthy, versus an obsession,” says Hoefle. Parents can talk with kids about “how moms and dads are friends,” and start conversations about what friendship means, and what character traits, like honesty and compassion, kids would like to have in their friends—and themselves.
Middle school kids are dealing with hormones for the first time in their lives, which can be overwhelming. Parents can help them sort through it all by asking questions that encourage them think about the attraction they feel, and how it relates to friendship: Does it get in the way? Does it deepen a relationship? “You might be attracted to someone,” Hoefle says. “But that doesn’t mean you want to hang out with them for an hour.” This is also a good time for parents to provide kids with actual tools for building relationships, like letting them know that if they want to spend time with someone, they’ll need to “pick up the phone and call them, or ask them in person.”
High school students, Hoefle says, can start to think about what they bring to a relationship. “The idea that you’re going to meet someone that completes you is complete hogwash,” Hoefle says. But “if a kid knows what they bring to the relationship, they’re much more likely to find someone who has the same qualities.”
At any age, romantic hopes can lead to sharp disappointment. And that’s a great place, Hoefle says, for parents to start conversations about what kids think its like to be in a real relationship: “Where did you get that idea? What if the person doesn’t live up to that?”
Hoefle’s final piece of romantic advice may seem like a paradox: “You are going to be rejected and let down, and that’s what makes life worth living.”
The trick, Hoefle says, is for parents to encourage kids to think of romantic disappointments as a chance to learn about what really matters, and their own inner resources. Even in romance, she says, “adversity brings out the best in us. And knowing deep down in your gut that no matter what the world throws at you, you are prepared to bounce back from it makes us fearless leaders and human beings.”