I always tell students that I can’t tell them when they should start dating. It doesn’t really matter what I think. I advise students to talk to their parents and obey whatever guidelines their parents provide. Parents know more about what’s best for their kids than I do, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have my own opinions about middle school relationships.
Should middle school students date? It’s a complicated question. The answer is different for every student. Here are seven thoughts for parents about middle school students and dating. I use “he” or “him” a lot in the following section, but the material applies equally well to girls:
- If your son or daughter confides that he or she is interested in someone of the opposite gender, celebrate! You’ve already won half the battle: Your student trusts you enough to talk about his love interest with you. This trust is a huge advantage for you. Do everything you can to maintain consistent communication with him as he explores the world of dating. If you’re struggling to build and maintain trust with your child, make that one of your top priorities.
- Encourage him to take it slowly. There is absolutely no need to rush into a relationship as a 6th, 7th, or 8th grader. I don’t think he’ll regret taking it slowly but he could regret moving too quickly. What’s the rush? If the relationship works out, he has a long time (all of high school and maybe longer) to allow things to progress.
- Seriously, don’t be weird about it. Sometimes adults revert to acting like middle school students when they learn about a new middle school couple. Act normal—like an adult should act—when you find out he has a love interest. It will show him that dating is a normal adult experience. Why do we get weird about relationships even as mature adults? It’s probably related to our own past insecurities and messy dating experiences.
- Speaking of our own messed-up pasts, don’t forget that this is not your dating life. Just because you never had a boyfriend until college doesn’t mean your son won’t be ready for a relationship earlier than that. Just because a boy treated you badly in high school doesn’t mean your son can’t treat a girl well as middle or high schooler. Just because your friend got pregnant in high school doesn’t mean you’ll be a grandma before age 40. It would be wise for you to draw on wisdom gleaned from your own dating past, but keep your past separate from your child’s future.
- Beware that his friends will probably not be supportive. I can only speak from my experience working closely with boys. Middle school boys often don’t know how to react when their friend starts liking a girl. For example, let’s say Elliot and Micah and are friends. Elliot likes a girl but Micah still has absolutely no desire to talk with girls. Don’t you think it’s going to throw Micah for a loop when he sees his friend hanging out with a girl? When middle school boys don’t understand something or don’t know how to react, they often settle for name-calling, teasing, or being obnoxious.
- Talk about physical boundaries. I’m not naive. I know that at least some middle school relationships get physical, and some are even sexual in nature. There’s no way that a middle schooler’s brain can deal with the emotional complexity that comes from a deeply physical relationship, so talk to him about it. Be clear about what you think is and is not okay for him to do with a girl. I often tell students something that a wise mentor once told me: “If you want to date someone because you want to do something with them that wouldn’t do if you were just friends, then you probably shouldn’t be doing that something, whatever it is.”
- Allow space and grace for him to mess up. Don’t be surprised if he makes a mistake like making her cry, breaking her heart, and acting like a total Neanderthal toward his special lady friend. Cut him some slack. None of us has a perfect dating record, either. No one is going to be a perfect boyfriend or girlfriend on the first try.
Through it all, keep those lines of communication open! Your middle schooler needs your guidance to navigate the complex world of dating! If you’re struggling or feel ill-equipped to provide support, ask an older couple with college-aged or young adult children. Older parents probably learned a thing or two along the way that could benefit you.