What is the right age to start dating?

What is the right age to start dating? I posed this question to my own teenage daughter. I expected something pushing the boundaries, along the lines of “tomorrow night”, but instead, she surprised me with an insightful comment: “It depends on the person,” she said. “And on what you mean by dating.”

Although some children may start dating before they officially become teenagers, most will only be brave enough to ask someone out when they hit age 13 or 14. Still, when that age group says that they’re “dating”, their interpretation of the concept will vary:

  • We are now boyfriend and girlfriend. This means we blush and turn away when we see each other at school. In the evening, we Skype or text or Snapchat.
  • We don’t sit together at lunch, but once or twice a week we walk home from school holding hands, then play computer games or go to the beach.
  • When we go out, it’s always with a group of friends. We “like-like” each other, but we never socialise as a couple.
  • We socialise as a couple, and sometimes get physical.

Although some experts warn against waiting too long to allow kids to date, many recommend 15 or 16 as the ideal ages to begin dating one-on-one. Ron Eagar, a paediatrician at Denver Health Medical Centre, explains it as follows: “There’s an enormous difference between a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old in terms of life experience.” He believes that, at age 14, teens are not equipped to navigate the tricky riptides of romantic relationships.

Of course, there are 14-year olds and there are 14-year olds. Some are more mature emotionally, others more mature physically. If you’re uncomfortable with your teen going on a date for whatever reason, have an open discussion about your reservations.

Be sure to mention the potential of hearts getting broken (theirs or the other person’s), as well as the different expectations people bring to the dating table (yes, we’re talking about the level of sexual engagement: Some teens may be satisfied with holding hands; others may not). Logistics will also have to enter into the equation: If your teen doesn’t have a driving licence or access to a car, will parents be expected to drive the young couple to dates, or is public transport an option? In today’s time-poor society, questions might need to be raised about the amount of time your teen can earmark for dating.

The fundamental thing is to listen and to acknowledge your teen’s feelings. Don’t trivialise the issue with comments along the lines of “You’ll get over it,” or “Most people don’t get married to their high school sweetheart.” First love can be a powerful emotion. In the words of Dr George Comerci, a Tucson paediatrician, “It is a very important relationship to teenagers, and it’s important for another reason, in that it is their first intimate relationship with someone outside their family.”

What is the right age to start dating? There is no magic number. Consider your child’s personality, their maturity level, and how busy their after-school schedule is. Whether they’re dating or just having a crush, let them know you are there for them if they need you.

Food for thought: Teenage pregnancies

A study conducted in the USA found that about 40% of teenagers had had sexual intercourse at least once, and the figure is similar in New Zealand. However, teenage pregnancies in New Zealand are on the decline, with only about 3 in 100 teenage girls getting pregnant nowadays.

Need to know: Online teen dating

There are several websites dedicated to Kiwi teenagers dating online. While this form of dating may seem preferable to younger teens (or their parents), it’s important to follow the usual safety rules:

  • Don’t reveal personal information.
  • Watch out for warning signs (oddities, inconsistencies, outdated slang).
  • Don’t feel pressured into doing anything you don’t want to do, or you know that you shouldn’t do.
  • Don’t meet your love interest alone: take a friend, tell others where you’re going, and meet at a busy place like a café.
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