By Wendy Helfenbaum
Nine-year-old Alec Greven’s handwritten pamphlet How to Talk to Girls sold like cupcakes at his suburban Colorado school book fair last fall. In December, it became a New York Times best-selling book. Packed with newbie dating advice including, “If you like a girl, don’t be silly and goofy” and “Comb your hair; don’t wear sweats,” this pint-sized romance guru’s musings may get many parents wondering: “Is my tween old enough to date?”
Stacey Eisenberg was totally unprepared when her son Ben, then 12, informed her he had a girlfriend. “I actually felt nauseous,” recalls the Montreal mom of four boys. “I asked what he meant, what he did with her; he didn’t want to talk about it.”
Three years later, Eisenberg spied her younger son, Jonah, 11, using deodorant. “That’s how I found out about his girlfriend; he spent time with her at recess, holding hands. My second-youngest son Max is nine; he’s talked about wanting a girlfriend since he was five!”
“In many cases, these relationships are minor infatuations,” says Dr. Derek Swain, a Vancouver-based registered psychologist. “The notion of boyfriend/girlfriend is somewhat romantic at this age, but it’s not filled with the potential for intimacy that parents might be afraid of.” However, Dr. Swain adds parents should be mindful of their kids’ physical maturation as some relationships do have some casual sexual activity such as “scoring” achievements. “Some nine-year-olds are well into puberty, and their notions of boyfriend/girlfriend could be different from their classmates’,” he says, so good guidance is important.
Calgary mom Diane Taylor’s first chat about dating occurred when her oldest son Bradyn, then 12, began taking an interest in a female classmate. “They were entering that “Does she like me? Do I like her?’ stage,” she notes. “I have strict rules: no dating, going for ice cream or to a movie alone. Bradyn sometimes spends time with her in the halls and around the schoolyard. He wanted to buy her perfume for her birthday. I told him he could buy a CD.” Dr. Swain encourages parents to establish their boundaries early so kids will know what to expect. “If not, in a couple of years, it will be very difficult to do so.”
Two years ago, when Shelley Kogan’s* daughter Sabrina* was 10, boys started asking her out. “We went for a long drive,” recalls Kogan, a Montreal mom of three. “I told her it was okay to have a boyfriend, but kissing was not appropriate at this age.” When Sabrina returned from camp that summer with a boyfriend, Kogan kept the lines of communication wide open. “I know some of her friends hold hands; some have had their first kiss,” says Kogan, who recently hosted a get-together at her home for Sabrina’s friends and their boyfriends. “They watched TV, played some board games, and that was it.”
Dr. Swain warns that the more parents try to force their kids to divulge information, the more their tween is going to keep things secret. Taylor says girls call her son on the phone and contact him through Facebook, and she acknowledges how he feels about each of them, “because I think that if you suppress that, they’ll start doing stuff behind your back.”
“Be curious and attentive,” advises Dr. Swain. “Invite this boyfriend or girlfriend over; get to know who that person is. There’s an evolving sense of trust in parental supervision; the more parental interaction there is, the more secure kids are and the more comfortable parents will be.”
Montreal writer Wendy Helfenbaum wonders when her four-year-old son will ask her how to play Spin The Bottle.
Some advice from teens
* Names have been changed
Keep reading for more on if your preteen wants to start dating.