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A Parent's Quest To Understand Youthful Dating In The Cyberspace Age

Kids Don't Need Their Father's Oldsmobile To Have A Relationship

On the drive to school this morning, I asked my 16- goin’ on 17-year-old son what ‘dating’ means to him and his friends.  He replied, “ Nobody I know uses that word.”

Pursuing the topic, I told him that I was aware that as early as middle school, kids were known to be  ‘going out together’ and I was curious about what that meant. He replied, “I’m not sure.”

My wife and I believe that our son is a pretty good kid who is confronted with some version of “everybody else” is "doing it" or "has one." Still, trying to understand the nature of modern youthful boy-girl relationships has been a continuing challenge and puzzle that my wife and I have been working on for some time now. We sometimes feel like CIA officers piecing together fragments of documents written in a foreign language.

Years ago, when we heard that a 12-year-old boy we knew from our neighborhood was "going out" with a girl from middle school, we wondered “What the heck does that mean?” and “Aren’t they a little young for that?”

We don’t claim to be experts by any means, but here are some observations we’ve made over time.

Cars: The middle school years seem to be the time when boys and girls become inclined to form relationships that could be described as "going out together." Since most middle school age kids are beholden to their parents’ ability and willingness to transport them, there seems to be a loosely built cap on how often they can ‘go out’ and where they can go.

The cell phone:  What we’ve found is that since the opportunity for physically getting together is quite often limited, youthful relationships often grow, blossom and wither in some form of cyberspace. Here’s a brief history of our family’s personal experiences.

We did not rush to get our son a cell phone, even though we knew that kids in our area who were 10 years old and younger had them. We endured a time when we were led to believe by our son that not having a cell phone was equivalent to depriving him of oxygen. When his after-school activities grew to the point that we needed to keep up with where he was and when he needed a ride, we bought one for him, at the ripe old age of 14.

Through the website of our cell phone service, we were able to monitor the phone numbers called, frequency and duration of each call and saw our first red flag on a call that lasted more than an hour.  Yes, it was from a girl.

Texting: His first cell phone was a fairly inexpensive model that enabled mom and dad to call and find out where he was and what he was up to. No keyboard.  We were shortly made aware of this glaring deficiency and learned that we were again depriving him of oxygen.  Those alphanumeric keys were so limiting of self-expression. We upgraded him to a keyboard phone at the advanced age of 16.

After the first month, I asked

 “How many text messages do you think you’ve sent and received?”

“I don’t know.”

“Take a guess.”

“Seven hundred?”

“Try again.”

I finally relented and shared that I knew the answer. Only 2,700 text messages in a 28-day period. Thankfully, that number has declined a bit as the novelty has worn off.

Again, the cell phone carrier web site lists the numbers, time and frequency of the texts, but not the messages themselves. Through conversations with our son we learned that boys do text each other, but after fairly short back and forth banter they’ve said their piece.  Girl- boy conversations seem to go on a bit longer.

Here’s where it gets interesting as a parent. Since we’re not privy to the nature of text conversations, periodic spot questions like, “Who are you texting now?” are the best we’ve been able to do to keep an eye on who’s on the other end of the line.

Facebook:  Even better than texting, Facebook enables kids to make hundreds of “friends”  and communicate directly in words and photos with those they choose to be close to. 

We’ve had many conversations with our son about how much time he spends of Facebook as compared to time on homework. Through our parental intelligence community we’re also learned about a few “ friends”  who post photos or thoughts that many parents would deem inappropriate or  might read as a some sign of potential trouble.

Although individual accounts are considered private, because the chain of friends is often extensive, red flag postings often leak out.  It’s a good idea to keep in touch with your son or daughter about what goes on in their Facebook account and keep in touch with other parents who’s kids are on Facebook.

Dating: Our son has had relationships with girls that we would define as dating or going out together.  Most frequently that would involve meeting at the local movie theater as part of a group including other friends, or visiting each other’s home after we’re confirmed that at least one parent will be present.

But the time actually spent together seems to pale in comparison to the amount of time spent texting and on Facebook, away from the prying eyes of parents.

When are kids ready for their first “relationship,” it might be a good starting point to start asking them early on what their peers are doing and how they relate to what they see.

Ask what “going out” means.  A key question that parents might never get a complete up-to-date  answer to  is "What do kids do when they hang out in cyberspace?”

Instead of wondering at what age their son or daughter is ready to date, parents might do well to keep the lines of communication as open as possible with their child and not hesitate to ask politely and frequently  “Who are you texting now?”

The classic definition of dating might be archaic in today’s world where teens have access to electronic communications that enable relationships at any distance.  Parents need to be aware that they no longer need their father’s Oldsmobile to go somewhere and feel alone together.

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