- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 9, 2008

“So, how’s your girlfriend?” I ask my son out of the blue. “Which one?” he says with a devious smile.

“The new one,” I say.

“Oh, her.” He shrugs. We both smile.

And that’s the end of our update on Jimmy’s dating life.

It’s all a joke, of course. Jimmy doesn’t have a dating life. The “girlfriend thing” remains awkward (his word) and unnecessary (my word).

Instead, we encourage our 14-year-old son to have a host of friends - girls as well as guys - and to forget about dating until the time is right. (That would be a time when he has his own money and a driver’s license.)

The fact that we discourage exclusive, romantic relationships for our tween and young teenage children - and that we monitor their behavior to assure they aren’t dating behind our backs - puts my husband and me outside the parenting norm. (What else is new?)

We believe in the concept of “late blooming” as far as dating goes, based on the theory that childhood is too short to spend your time worrying, for example, about whether your 13-year-old girlfriend has seen you talking at your locker to another person who just happens to be - gasp! - a female.

So while some 14-year-old boys must attend to the emotional whims of their romantic partners, my son must concern himself only with important things, such as how the Yankees are doing and how long he must wait until I feed him again.

It turns out our values about late blooming and our strong stand against exclusive relationships for tweens and young teens also may be a way to reduce our children’s risk for physical and emotional abuse.

A recent study commissioned by Liz Claiborne Inc. and loveisrespect.org, the nonprofit group that operates the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline, reveals three disturbing trends: tweens and teens are being abused in relationships at alarming rates; they don’t know the warning signs of abuse; and worst of all, many parents are completely clueless about their children’s relationships.

Here are the survey’s major findings from the summary prepared by Teenage Research Unlimited (February 2008):

— Dating relationships start younger than realized: Nearly half of 11- to 14-year-olds have been in a dating relationship.

— Sex is considered part of tween dating relationships by a surprising number of tweens and parents - though parents believe it is not their tweens who are having sex.

— Significant levels of abusive behavior are reported in tween dating relationships, and teens report that abusive behavior increases dramatically in the teen years (15-18).

— Data reveal that early sexual activity appears to fuel dating violence and abuse among teenagers.

— Although most parents discuss relationships with their tweens, they really seem to be in the dark about what goes on.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that although this information is disturbing, it should not be at all surprising.

I can’t fathom how we can raise a collective eyebrow at the notion of 11-year-olds engaged in romantic and sexual relationships when parents are the ones paying for their too-sexy clothing, driving them to the cineplex to see too-sexy movies, putting TVs in their bedrooms to watch reruns of “Sex and the City” and letting them wander through cyberspace having sexy conversations with their peers.

Perhaps the only surprise I can find in that survey is that parents don’t know what their children are really doing.

The point is, dating behavior isn’t about dating, it’s about sex.

As archaic as this may sound, sex is still a very powerful force, filled - as it should be - with emotions and attachments that are not meant for children. Throw in the immaturity of a tween or teenager and the prospect of abuse seems likely, indeed.

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