Rules For Dating In A Non-Dating World

Young teen couple sitting side by side, looking coy


Posted in: Hot Topics, Teenagers

Topics: Relationships

Before I actually had a daughter, I imagined that I’d be pretty cool with the whole dating thing.  You know, a tiny bit formal perhaps—ask the young man (or the young lady) a few probing but non-threatening questions; remind both my daughter and her date about the curfew; and, refrain from kissing my daughter goodbye.  (There was a girl I dated in high school whose father always kissed her goodbye before she left on a date with me.  I couldn’t shake the idea that he was somehow threatening me with that kiss, and it made the rest of the night, at least for me, uncomfortably awkward.  I’m guessing that was his point.)

But now I have two daughters.  And, when they were younger, I changed my tune a bit.

I am aware that this change of heart is a time-honored cliché, but I am powerless to resist these feelings no matter how hackneyed they seem.  I imagined the first young man ringing the doorbell.  I imagined greeting him, and, for the sake of menace, I would have practiced all day how to smoke just one cigarette.  That way, after we’d shake hands, I’d let the smoke slowly drift out of my nostrils.  Then I’d smile, and tell him that I expect my daughter home by, oh, I dunno, maybe 8pm?

But I didn’t plan on what I’m told is more likely to happen: that my daughter will someday receive a text that says (romantically) something like, “Yo, you busy?  Wanna hang out?”

That’s so unfair!  It circumvents entirely the tradition of dads who have practiced their whole married lives the scaring-of-the-boyfriend intervention since the birth of their daughters.  It’s like we went to practice every day from the time our daughters were born, but never get to play the game.

Let me first set the record straight. I’m not going to blow smoke out of my nose.  My oldest daughter (the one of dating age), has not received, to my knowledge, any such texts.

But still, I suppose this lengthy prelude speaks to the anxiety that parents may feel as they try to make sense of a world where dating has increasingly become a “thing people don’t do.”  (Those were the words of one of my teen patients a few years back.)

Here are some ideas to play with.  According to a piece in The Wall Street Journal in 2007:

  • All around the U.S., formal dances are fading from existence. No one goes.  Kids still go out with each other on the evening of the planned dance, and they might even rent the tux or buy the dress.  They just eschew the dance itself.  Instead, they’re likely to travel in packs to hang in someone’s basement—and we know that there’s generally less oversight in a basement than at a school-sponsored dance (or even a movie theater for that matter).
  • A fascinating paper from the Archives of Sexual Research published in 2009 showed that, among college students at Michigan State, so-called “friends with benefits” (that is, a sexual relationship absent of even the pretense of romance) were popular precisely because they avoided the messy entanglements of romantic feelings.
  • That same study showed that while 60% of 125 students surveyed had had relatively random and deliberate “hook-ups” (read: sexual relations), 9 out of 10 of these encounters didn’t end in a lasting relationship.
  • While there appears to be a desire for romantic engagement, there is also a cluelessness among young people as to how to bring about such engagement. In other words, young men and women, from the teen years to adulthood, WANT to be wooed, but they seem to lack the template for how to make that happen.

So, here we are again, we graying and aging parents, trying to raise our kids in the shiny present tense through the now antiquated rules of our hard-earned past.

Except that those rules probably aren’t as antiquated as they may seem.  As we noted above, both boys and girls would like a bit more romance.  There’s certainly no shortage of romantic comedies, after all.  And, interestingly, Hollywood doesn’t market to what we DON’T want when it comes to relationships.  Hollywood tends to favor either cautionary tales or examples of how we’d like things to be.  For example, the movies that have explicitly dealt with the concept of “friends with benefits” have almost exclusively portrayed courtship—even when the couple of interest doesn’t end up together.  We could rattle off these movies, but that’s the subject of another post.  For now, we’d like to offer some talking points.  These will inevitably yield blushing and protests if you should choose to discuss these with your children, but then again, don’t you yourself remember blushing through one of these talks, and then later realizing the wisdom of what your parents had to say?

  • Romance, courtship, taking it slow…however you want to phrase it, is good. It feels good.  I’m not talking about the man holding the door for the girl; that DOES seem a bit old-fashioned (though I still smile whenever I see it).  I’m talking about the mutual respect, admiration and anxiety that go into learning about someone in whom you have a romantic interest.  I’m talking about learning to talk and, perhaps even more importantly, learning to listen.  Simply reminding your child to listen to his or her date (if a date should appear) is a great place to start.
  • “Hooking up” actually doesn’t feel that good. That’s also been studied.  It’s awfully hard, given the feelings that are stirred up through sexual intimacy, to have sex with someone and then have it mean next to nothing.  Many of us have done it, and most likely our kids will too (sorry), but it makes sense to remind our kids of how this experience might leave them feeling.
  • Given the lack of dating that is increasingly becoming the norm, if your teen does find him or herself on an honest to goodness date, that poor kid might not have the slightest idea how to act. Here’s where I’d suggest two things: 1.) Remind your terrified child that neither did any of us when we dated.  Every date is different, every person is different, and feeling terrified or anxious is natural.  2.) Offer concrete examples of how to behave.  For example, see the movie before dinner.  That way, you’ll have something to talk about.  Be aware of when you’re talking too much, and be sure to let your date talk too.  If he or she is reticent, ask questions.  Be curious.
  • Don’t be too permitting. That’s creepy. Don’t be the parent who says that she’ll make herself scarce when kids are hanging out at home (meaning they can therefore do whatever they want).  Yeah, it happens more than you’d think.  I’ve talked to plenty of kids who don’t WANT that kind of permission. It’s confusing and unsettling.  Tell your child and his or her date that you expect them both to behave responsibly—they’ll know what you mean.

Although it may seem that your kids aren’t dating, you should know that they are still engaging in social relationships for which the old rules apply.  Therefore, you can and should be part of this process.  After all, how are they going to know what to teach their kids?

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Steven Schlozman, MD

Steven Schlozman, MD

Steven Schlozman, MD, is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (HMS), course director of the psychopathology class for the MIT-HMS Program in Health, Sciences and Technology, and former co-director of the Clay Center for Youn...

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