In all seriousness, though, it might be fair to put dating—or “hanging out” as many middle schoolers say—near the top of the list. If dating in middle school terrifies you, take stock of your concerns.
Perhaps you’re worried about early physical intimacy, heartbreak, or your tween’s reputation. Don’t overwhelm yourself or your child with fears. Instead, choose the top one or two to discuss calmly and without criticism. Whenever your child wants something, they are more open to listening to you. Use that to your advantage.
This is a good opportunity to share your values, perspectives, and hopes.
If you react reasonably, with a willingness to learn and be flexible, your child will trust your judgment and continue to seek your advice as the issues around dating become increasingly complex.
Your tween might show an interest in being more than friends with someone they know. This is one of many signs your tween is entering adolescence. It’s helpful for parents to recognize that being more than friends doesn’t necessarily mean an interest in physical intimacy. A lack of clear terms with these middle school relationships is part of the problem. When a middle schooler wants to date or go out, we’re left wondering, “What does middle school dating even mean?”
How to Approach Dating In Middle School:
1. Define terms
Begin by asking your tween what it means for them.
Is it spending time together at the mall or movies? Or maybe it’s just extra texting and a change in her social media status. You won’t know unless you ask. This is also an opportunity for you to talk about your own expectations for what you believe is appropriate in middle school.
2. Establish ground rules
There is no hard rule for when tweens should be allowed to date. Keep in mind that even if you forbid young relationships and dating, your tween may still spend lots of time with a special someone at school. What’s more, forbidden fruit has a unique appeal.
Rather than a flat no, you might consider a more nuanced answer that includes “yes” to some scenarios (Okay, you can say you’re going out), “maybe” to others (I’ll consider whether you can go to a movie together, but if I say yes, I will be in the theater a few rows away), and “no” to others (You are too young to go to the movies without a chaperone and, by the way, you’re too young to kiss).
You should also be talking about the appropriate age or circumstance for different levels of physical contact. This is not for the faint of heart, but you can do it. Otherwise, how will your tween know what’s appropriate for a young relationship?
3. Recognize the positives
For many tweens, dating in middle school simply means texting excessively. Remember, middle schoolers often feel isolated and abnormal by nature. They fret about being likable and accepted.
To be dating (whatever that means) can be the ultimate confidence booster.
It can also be a nice way to make a personal connection, learn how respectful relationships are built, and develop personal insight. Plus, remember the thrill of your first crush? It’s just fun.
4. Beware of risks
Do keep an eye out for serial relationships, though. A 2013 study from the University of Georgia found that middle schoolers who were in high-frequency or back-to-back relationships tended to be prone to higher-risk behaviors, like drinking or doing drugs, later in adolescence.
I would caution against group dating, too. It may seem like a safety net to have more tweens around, but the group mentality can quickly push boundaries. Two awkward, gawky tweens forced to think of conversation is much better than a group of tweens daring the couple to go into a closet for seven minutes. (I don’t know if that’s still a thing, but it was when I was in middle school.) You get the point.
Teen romance may have been dissected a million ways by popular culture, but that dubious analysis pales in comparison to a recent study that followed the arc of teen dating from grades 6 to 12. “We see four trajectories,” says Pamela Orpinas, a professor of behavioral research at the University of Georgia and the lead author of the study, which included 600 students. “Some kids never or hardly ever dated; some kids did not date during middle school and started dating during high school. Others dated all the time—or at least that’s what they reported. And others reported dating all the time in sixth grade, and then decreased, and then increased again.”
And the significance of these trajectories? Those who dated the most were shooting toward disaster: they were four times more likely to drop out of high school and reported twice as much substance abuse as those who were dating less. “Among adults or older adolescents or young adults, dating is actually a really good thing,” explains Orpinas, “because you’re more stable, happier, and less likely to do drugs.” But the earlier you start, the more likely the opposite results.
“Risk-taking behaviors in adolescents cluster,” says Lynn Ponton, professor of psychiatry at University of California, San Francisco, and the author of The Sex Lives of Teenagers: Revealing the Secret World of Adolescent Boys and Girls. And early-onset dating is an important clue as to whether your child might be a high-risk taker, particularly if it is accompanied by poor grade performance. But unlike substance abuse and depression—the two other horsemen of a teenage apocalypse—dating and grades are easier to spot and easier for parents to talk to their kids about. “Parents need to be able to assess in middle school what type of risk taker their adolescent or young eighth grader is,” she says. “If you have a high-risk taker as an eighth grader, you’re going to need to impose certain sanctions, provide alternative opportunities for healthy risk taking, and work with school and other parents to help your adolescent to learn how to assess risk in a healthier way.”
But perhaps the most interesting and unnerving aspect to early dating is that it is no longer perceived as something that is relatively private. Teens are not simply going through a worse version of the gossip an adult might face during a breakup. “Teens live off of Facebook in seventh and eighth grade in a way that we don’t as adults,” says Ponton. “And they are not prepared to take the ramifications of having their sexual and romantic lives propelled into the mainstream world. They’re still kids.”
While the academic studies aren’t in yet, she says she has seen a lot more seventh and eighth graders in her practice who are suffering depressed reactions or engaging in dangerous risk taking after their romantic and sexual lives, and breakups, were exposed on the Internet. “With Romeo and Juliet, one town was difficult,” she says. “Now, they’re suddenly seen as dumb by the whole world.”
So my daughter started Middle School and would tell me that her friends had boyfriends.
First of all, when I was in sixth grade, I was still playing with Barbies, so this is baffling to me.
Second of all, I was like, “So what do they do? Hold hands?”
Natalie replied, aghast, “Oh no! Never. Everyone is too shy for that. It just means they are going out.”
“Out where?” I asked.
Natalie blinked and tilted her head to the side, confused.
“You said they were going out. Where?”
“It’s just the saying. It means they are going out. Together.” Natalie said this slowly as though conversing with Brandi from the Real Housewives of Dallas when she’s had too much to drink.
“Yes,” I answered. “But when you say going out, it implies people are going somewhere.”
“They aren’t though,” Natalie snapped. “It’s just the SAYING.”
So okay, let me get this straight: dating in Middle School means going out, but not going out, and not holding hands.
Anyway, for Valentine’s Day Natalie said she wanted to give candy to a boy she liked. They talked daily, and Natalie decided she’d give him something to show she was interested. She knows if she waits around for a boy to make a move, she might be waiting for a long time, and I always tell her to go for what she wants.
So she gave him this:
(And yes, that is Beth Pearson in the background being like, “You go, girl!” or, “Good luck. You know how middle school boys can be.”)
Natalie said his face turned red, but he said thank you and said it reminded him of a scepter.
And then the next day, he gave her this box of chocolates:
Maybe he had been too shy to give her something on Valentine’s Day. Maybe he went out and got her something as a thank you. I don’t know. But Natalie thought it was sweet.
Then she was all, “It’s official,” and I went, “What is?” and she said, “We’re going out,” which, after our earlier convo, I knew meant they really wouldn’t be going anywhere. She said she figured it was official when one of her friends asked him if they were going out and he said yes, sure.
Naturally she has rules, one being, no kissing.
“You’re too young. You’re only 11,” I told her.
Natalie went, “Vada kissed Thomas J and she was 11.”
I replied, “Don’t use one of my favorite movies against me. Also, he died right after, so. “
Basically she says her friends tease her about him daily and dare her to do stuff like give him a hug. Or when he walks by they shout, “Hey Natalie’s boyfriend!” and when Natalie walks by HIS friends, they shout, “Hey, *insert boy’s name* girlfriend!” It’s still rather juvenile in middle school, which is how I like it.
Natalie says she gave him a side hug and I went, “Great idea, be like the Duggars!” and she gave me a look like:
So yeah. My daughter has a “boyfriend”, but they don’t go anywhere, and they won’t be holding hands because people point and laugh, and they give side hugs. Also, he doesn’t have a phone because it broke, so they don’t text, but if they did, Natalie says all her friends with boyfriends text is emojis, basically. And the boyfriends rarely text back because they’re too busy playing Fortnite.
Many adults remember having their first boyfriend or girlfriend in sixth, seventh, or eighth grade. Some consider it a normal step for kids entering adolescence — a rite of passage like acne or being embarrassed by your parents — but it may be time to reconsider.
Turns out, puppy love may not be quite as harmless as it seems. According to research, dating in middle school is tied to poor study habits and even dropping out as well as behaviors such as drinking alcohol and doing drugs. Compared to adolescents who waited or dated early and then reversed their course in high school, early daters reported twice as much drug, tobacco, and alcohol use and dropped out of school at four times the rate.
Pamela Orpinas, a child development researcher at the University of Georgia, made this startling discovery over the course of a seven-year longitudinal study where she followed more than 600 kids in Georgia from sixth to twelfth grade.
Dating’s effect on studies
Every year, she’d ask the students a series of questions about everything from homework habits to whether they’d tried pot. The pivotal question, just a single line in the survey, was whether the child “had a boyfriend or girlfriend (someone that you dated, gone out with, gone steady with)” in the previous three months. In addition to collecting the kids’ survey responses, Orpinas gathered information from the children’s teachers. Every year, teachers rated the children’s study skills — such as completing homework, reading assigned chapters, being organized, and doing extra credit work — from high to low.
Her study, published in the Journal of Research on Adolescence in 2013, is among the first to look at how early dating is related to school work, and the results are pretty clear: “The kids who report little or no dating, their teacher evaluations are consistently higher — and the kids who report dating more, their teacher evaluations are consistently low.” What the study leaves unexplained is whether early dating was associated with broader risk factors for problem behavior — such as low socioeconomic status — or whether early dating was linked to problem behavior irrespective of other risks.
While it won’t surprise most parents to hear alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs listed as problem behaviors, it’s likely to raise eyebrows that early dating belongs on that same list. But it does, Orpinas says. “It’s a risk factor,” she says, “and it’s associated with other problem behaviors.”
What is “dating” in middle school, anyway?
Over the course of her study, Orpinas left the meanings of “dating,” “going out with,” and “going steady” up to the kids’ interpretations. Partly, she says, because kids at each stage and grade know what these things mean to them — and that’s more useful for self-reporting survey responses than getting bogged down in a definition, she says. “In the end, it’s some kind of romantic involvement.”
The big questions, then, are what really constitutes dating and when should you start letting your child date? For instance, what about so-called relationships that exist solely via text message — a trend dubbed D8-ing in a Wall Street Journal story. Are these situations, where kids text incessantly but barely utter a word to one another, count? It’s a gray area — but if you think kids would report them in response to Orpinas’ survey, they probably do. “It’s definitely an area for further research,” Orpinas says, warning that any relationship-like activity that dominates hours of a middle schooler’s time is a red flag. “We had one participant who would talk on the phone from 6 pm to 4 am with her boyfriend,” Orpinas recalls, lamenting the lack of balance in the girl’s life. Even when kids are only texting, she says, “parents really need to step in and see how much time they’re spending.”
Text-only dating is just one facet of the complex early dating scene, along with “more than friends” and “Facebook official” and everything in between. The only real way to find out what counts? You’ll have to have that conversation with your child.
Just ban dating till they’re 16?
From 2003 to 2009, as Orpinas was collecting the survey data and spotting the tie between early dating and poor study skills, she admits she forbade her daughter (now in college) from dating till she turned 16. “To my surprise, she was very relieved,” Orpinas says. “She didn’t have to deal with the peer pressure.” Orpinas reasons that early dating affects schoolwork negatively because these relationships tend to be short — and when it ends, the kids are still in the same class. She likens it to the emotional fallout that often comes from adults dating coworkers.
Forbidding kids to date until they’re 16 is a popular solution. Vic, a middle school teacher and father of six, says, “Dating is about learning to establish stable romantic relationships,” but tweens just aren’t capable of that yet. “Middle schoolers need to be learning to establish stable emotional self-awareness,” he says. “Pairing up during early adolescence makes about as much sense as smoking at a gasoline refinery.”
Feona Sharhran Huff, mom of a middle school girl, was disturbed when a boy asked her daughter out. “I have seen the emotional effects that dating has on some of my friends’ middle school children,” she says. “The girls post things [on Facebook] like, ‘I love him but why is he doing me like this?’ and ‘Why doesn’t he call me? I need to talk to him,’” says Huff, adding that these aren’t the types of thoughts or emotions she thinks girls should experience at this age. To Huff’s delight, her daughter told the boy no. “[I] wanted to shed tears of joy when she said that she told the young man that she was too young and had to focus in her studies,” she says.
Or let them be
Yet simply banning dating till later may be neither simple nor effective. With girls reaching puberty earlier, is it wrong to force kids to ignore their biological development? And what about the kids who’ll date anyway, just behind your back?
There is a silver lining here: at a certain age, for certain kids, good, strong dating relationships are really positive. “Being in a good relationship as an older adolescent or young adult is a protective factor,” Orpinas says. Specifically, studies show that older kids with good grades tend to seek out partners with similar academic standing — and those students tend to continue to do well. (Kids with lower grades, however, tend to choose romantic partners for other achievements, such as “good at partying.”) So what’s the age cutoff? “That’s the million dollar question that every mother wants to know,” Orpinas laughs.
After spending years evaluating this research and using it to inform her own parenting, Orpinas offers this advice. Some kids are under so much pressure to get into relationships they don’t really want, they may need their parents to set limits. Encourage them to make friends and get to know each other, she says, rather than date.
I recently came across an article with that very title– Should I let my middle schooler date? The article gets pretty sanctimonious, and talks all about how you should definitely not let your middle schooler date.
But what really surprised me was how everyone in the comments agreed that you should absolutely not let your middle schooler date.
Dude, I get it. I get that it is stressful to think about your kids “dating” I get that when they are “going out” they aren’t actually going anywhere, and I get that, but what on earth makes people think that they can keep these kids from “dating” from “going out” from being “boyfriend and girlfriends” with each other?
Are we so old that we don’t remember middle school? All those confused hormones all holed up in one giant building. Teachers just trying to keep the peace while girly girls flash too much leg, boys who can’t stop staring at all the things they haven’t learned yet to stop staring at, and of course, all the RELATIONSHIPS that these kids have with each other.
“So-and-so likes you, do you like her?”
“I totally ship these two.” Is something you see all over their instagram accounts. Their snapchats filled with streaks to and from each other.
So, to all of those parents out there asking, “Should I let my middle schooler date?” Uh, guess what– that isn’t your decision. You can forbid. You can suggest, but this isn’t up to you. This is one of those times where we have to HOPE we have raised our children to make the right decisions, to pick and choose the right friends, and dare it say it– boyfriends and girlfriends.
You can FORBID your kids from falling for others all you want, but you can’t stop it. So quit trying. Do you know what happens to those parents who don’t let their kids “date?” Those kids DO IT ANYWAY, and guess what? Those parents have no idea. This is one of those times where it’s better to let your kids do what they want to do and offer the guidance that keeps them from making terrible decisions that can get them into real trouble later!
This isn’t a time to put on your hard-ass hat. This is a time to listen, to be there, and to show your kids that you can have an open honest relationship. THIS is the time when your kids need you. Be there for them.
Thursday 4th of July 2019
Lalala is a PRIME example of why we have to keep young people from dating. I agree whole-heartedly with Christina. My kids may be crushing, they may spend time together at school and even call each other boyfriend or girlfriend, but they will NOT be dating before 16, period. She will not be going anywhere without adult chaperones, he will not be taking any girls anywhere unless they are going with a group of kids I trust and there is adult supervision. I will not drive them, neither will their dad. I will not pay for it, neither will their dad. If I say no dating, that is exactly what I mean and it has been no problem so far. 2 down, 1 to go. I started talking to my children about this topic when they were tweens, they know me, they take me at my word. If my child ever acted like Lalala, they would lose the privilege of everything they ever had access to, other than what the law requires: One set of clothing to be washed every other day, 2 pairs of underwear, a mattress and a pillow (cause I am nice), 3 meals a day. No electronics of any kind, no treats, no snacks, no spending money. PB and J for lunch at school every day. No door on their room. That is all that I am required to give them per the law and that is all they get if they don’t respect the rules. Once they understand the choices, they will fix their behavior and attitude pretty quickly, usually. I love my kids, they follow the rules until they are old enough to move out. Once they move out, they can make their own choices. I will have prepared them to be good adults, with morals and values that have served me very well. None of my kids ran away or moved out before they turned 18. They understood the purpose of the rules and they knew they were loved and cared for.
Some people will feel this is abusive, it is not. My children are never denied the things they need to be healthy and clean. They are taught right from wrong and they learn respect and follow my rules. That is what a parent is SUPPOSED to teach their kids. If you are not teaching them these things, you are neglecting the appropriate care of your child. Is my way the only way? No, it is not. You do you and I will do me. I just wanted to share where I stand on the matter.
Sunday 17th of March 2019
Let kids make own mistakes, give em the talk, let them know the things you would prefer not to do, and let them know the future events that might happen, but dont have a tone where it sounds like ur being rude, my mom does it with me and we always fight about it.
Monday 17th of September 2018
You may not have control of your kids crushes or them holding hands with a boy or gurl in school, but you 100% have control on whether or not they date. Last time I checked kids under 16 can’t drive and most still rely on Mom and Dad to pay for everything.
Parents set the standards you deem appropriate. Not all of us our letting our kids do whatever they want when they want to do it .
Sunday 17th of March 2019
Bitch please, I’m 11 and all ppl ever say is “DONT DO IT”, all we do is go to movies. Is that having sex? NOPE, so shut up
Sunday 10th of September 2017
I understand where the author is coming from, but I can’t say agree. You “teach your children good principles, and let them govern themselves”. I was taught to wait dating until I was 16. I had all my own agency, and still chose to follow the rules of my parents. Not all kids will, but I hope to instill a standard of conduct in my children by talking to them about these things early on and helping them understand the temporary age restriction rather than letting them be ruled by those confused hormones that can potentially have consequences they can’t fathom at this age.
Monday 24th of July 2017
I was terrified of boys in middle school. A boy sent his friend over to ask me out for him, and I literally stopped being able to see the world around me and shook my head so hard it hurt and ran to my class. I still have no clue what either boy looked like.
I also had two friends who dated in middle school and . . . let’s just say I hope my kids take after me.