EXPERT Q&A

At what age is it acceptable for my child to date?

The issue of dating in elementary school is tricky for parents, especially since there are no hard and fast rules for kids this age. The important step is to have a conversation with your child about setting boundaries, healthy relationships, and consent. Learn more here.

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Question

We have an 11-year-old son who is in 5th grade this year. He has told us several times that he likes a girl in his class and that they are dating. From my understanding, it seems this means they like each other and sit together at lunch. And sometimes, they hold hands while on the playground at recess. My partner and I are totally uncomfortable with this, even though it seems rather innocent. Our problem with it is that we feel like elementary school should be a place to learn academic, social, and problem-solving skills, and not focused on dating relationships. Are we too old-fashioned in our thinking? We are older parents and I know some people don’t think this is a big deal at all.

Answer

This is a tough one! It is definitely one of those times when it would be nice if parenting came with a handbook. You could simply skip ahead to the chapter titled “Dating” and there would be a clear-cut answer right there! Even simpler, it would be great if our children could simply go to school to do their work and make friends, without even the thought of dating. But since that’s not the case, parents have to rely on their own judgment and knowledge of their child when making decisions and setting boundaries around topics like dating.

According to a 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), many 5th graders self-reported that they have “dated” their peers, and around 5% even reported engaging in sexual intercourse before the age of 13. Thankfully, dating at this age does not typically include physical contact other than the occasional hug or hand-holding. Most kids won’t even spend time together outside of school unless they are in a casual group setting that includes parental supervision.

All of that being said, it’s entirely up to you as parents to decide what you are comfortable with. If you feel strongly that 5th grade is too young to date, it’s okay to let your child know. And make sure you are clear about your reasoning, including ensuring that schoolwork, learning, and extracurricular activities are made a priority. Be sure to make this a conversation with your child, and that your son can and should maintain friendships with his female peers—which is incredibly important to helping children question stereotypes and learn different types of conflict-resolution skills. Developing friendships with girls his age also allows him to develop empathy for the issues and challenges girls and women face.

Until the time comes when you do feel they are ready to date, you can talk with your child about what a healthy relationship looks like, what it might look like to date as a teenager, and how to speak up if they aren’t being treated well in a future relationship. It’s also important to try your best to model a healthy relationship for your child. Be sure they know how to treat a partner with respect, speak to them kindly, and respect their boundaries. That way, when they are ready to date, they will have a great foundation.

One last piece of advice is to begin having conversations about bodily autonomy and consent from an early age. These conversations can empower children to say no if they are in an uncomfortable situation or fear they are in harm’s way. In turn, this can also help them show respect to and better understand their actions around their peers. Learn more here.

Remember, we are here for you along the way!

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Meet The Expert


Shenley Seabrook

Shenley Seabrook is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor who works primarily with children and adolescents in a private practice setting. She is also a foster parent and lives with her husband and daughter in Indiana. Shenley recently wrote her first children’s book, We Have the Same Heart, which celebrates diversity, inclusion, and community service.