What Do You Do When Your 11-Year-Old Talks of Dating?

PRESSURE TO GROW UP FASTER

Grant, a Chicago-area fourth-grader, calmly announces over his after-school snack that he plans to take a girl on "a date."

In Evanston, Ill., 11-year-old Monica pleads for a boy-girl dance party for her birthday.

Hundreds of miles away in Massachusetts, fifth-grader Grace tearfully confides that all the "cool" kids in her class are paired up, and she isn't. "I hate being different," she sighs.

As American children face myriad pressures to grow up faster, preadolescent "dating" is on the rise, child psychologists say. "Kids are using [dating] as a sign to themselves, friends, and parents that they are more grown up," says Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychiatry at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Although not inherently harmful, early dating can put youths at risk for drug use, promiscuity, and other delinquent behavior, experts say. They advise parents not to push the timetable, but to try to understand why a child wants to date and respond with appropriate guidance and limits.

Early experiments with romance vary widely, from the childish: "Tommy likes so-and-so and he's going to kiss her on the playground"; to the pseudo-sophisticated: young twosomes seeing a movie unchaperoned.

Interest may first appear in fourth grade, but the age range differs from one community and ethnic group to another. In general, white children in rural settings, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans date later than African-Americans and white children in urban areas, says Brad Brown, professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Several factors underlie the trend, experts say.

Changes in the American family are leading preteens to assume adult roles earlier. With the rise in the number of single-parent and dual-income families, youths are more likely to care for siblings and cook meals. "When you blur the distinction between children's roles and adult roles, it spills over into other activities," Steinberg says.

More children also have firsthand role models for dating because their parents are single or divorced.

Children are also spending less time with parents and more time with peers, whether in day care or after-school activities. "If kids realize that their mother will not always be there, they look for alternatives - not replacements, but supplements," Professor Brown says.

Another important influence, experts say, is media and advertisements that encourage children to acquire the trappings of adulthood.

Popular shows like NBC's "Friends," which is full of sexual innuendo and glamorizes drinking and other adult behavior by twenty-somethings, is viewed in millions of US homes. "'Friends' is what these kids are watching. They are learning things at a younger age," says Grant's mother. Grant "gets very irate when he can't watch it," she says. (The real names of the children have been withheld at their parents' request.)

Still, preteen dating is usually not classic courtship involving significant romantic feelings or sexual activity, experts say. More often, it is driven by a desire by youths to boost their status, appear mature, or flaunt their "coolness" before friends and family.

Grant, for example, told everyone on his block last spring that he was taking Laurie to the ice-cream parlor. "It was a status thing. He was saying, 'I'm the first boy in my class to go out on a date, and I'm going with a really cute girl,'" says Grant's mother, who sat in the car during the rendezvous. Apparently having made his point, Grant didn't ask Laurie out again.

For Grant and other preteens, pairing up is often more important in thought than in reality. "Our data suggest that kids fantasize about it but actually spend very little time with the opposite sex one-on-one," says Maryse Richards, professor of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago.

Sometimes, however, dating can become a preoccupation for youths - and a concern for parents. Studies show that youths who withdraw from friends, family, and school to devote time to partners, as well as those who become sexually involved early, are at greater risk for delinquent behavior.

Girls, in particular, are more likely to rush ahead with dating at the expense of schoolwork, says Candice Feiring, a pediatrician at the Robert Woods Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, N.J. "Girls are bombarded with the message that happiness is having the right boyfriend. Parents should focus on other areas of competency for girls," she says.

Experts offer parents the following advice about early dating:

*Don't push the timetable by encouraging dating among preteens. For example, don't tease with questions such as "Who's your girlfriend?" or leave a party of fifth-graders alone with music and soft lights.

*Emphasize friendship. Encourage children to talk about shared interests as the basis for relationships.

*Allow limited, well-chaperoned activities with friends of the opposite sex. Keep in close touch with other parents about parties and sleepovers.

*Don't equate an interest in dating with maturity. Remember that pre-teens are still much like children. Give lots of hugs to reinforce a connection to the family. "Our culture is terrified of adolescent sexuality so parents tend to back off physically," says Susan Mackey, clinical director of the Family Institute at Northwestern University in Evanston. "That's a bad message because it sexualizes physical contact and kids lose all that cuddly time."

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