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Slowly Letting Go

Granting Preteens Their Freedom

Your middle school daughter wants to go to the school dance – with a boy. Your 11-year-old son asks if he and a group of "friends" can go to the movies. How about Roller blading at the rink? Dating one on one? Having friends of the opposite sex over when no one's home?

When children cross the threshold into adolescence, a complex myriad of issues starts to crop up for parents. Preteens begin experimenting with members of the opposite sex both as friends and as boyfriends/girlfriends. Parents who have had a close relationship with their child may begin to hear about these changes firsthand. Others may only suspect them. "My daughter came home and told me that a boy asked her to go with him," says the mom of an 11-year-old girl. "'Go where?' I asked naively."

"Going with" is a preteen expression for going steady. Along with the lingo, parents need to address a number of topics surrounding the changes this age group faces. Of all the freedoms preteens request, which ones should parents allow?

"The ultimate goal of the parent-adolescent partnership is autonomy," says Lawrence Steinberg, Ph.D., author of You and Your Adolescent: A Parent's Guide for Ages 10 to 20. "You wouldn't hand your daughter the keys to the car on her 16th birthday and wish her bon voyage." The same principle applies to other privileges. Parents need to take an active role in how much or how little freedom they grant.

Dating one-on-one?

We, as parents, want our kids to be active. Young teens like activities, which keeps them out of trouble. But this age needn't go on the conventional "date." Going with a group of friends is much more appropriate. Going to the movies, skating or school dances (which are generally well supervised) are great ways for preteens to participate in activities with members of both sexes. One-on-one dating is better reserved for older teens with more maturity. If your preteen bugs you for an age at which she'll be allowed to date, tell her you'll have to see how she handles these group-date situations for a few years first.

"It's much healthier for girls to develop the social skills needed for dating gradually and in groups with other girls to support them and adults to supervise," Steinberg says. The same is true for young boys.

Having Friends Over

Certainly having friends over is as important to the preteen as it was during younger years, and parents should encourage this to continue. "I always say I'd rather have them at my house, so at least I know what they're up to," one mom says.

Inviting the boyfriend or girlfriend over is a wonderful way to set the stage for later when your teen is seriously dating. If you make this a habit, you will more than likely be introduced to new "friends" without ever having to ask.

Of course, when preteens are home alone, it's not the time to entertain guests of the opposite sex. Make this and any other ground rules, such as not entertaining in the bedroom, a discussed part of the rules right from the start. "Parents and adolescents should be clear about which family rules are negotiable and which are not," Steinberg says.

Sex

If you haven't had "the" talk yet, or, more importantly, the series of talks about relationships, sex and the body's changes during this stage, now is a good time. Preteens need to know about body changes, hormones and the feelings that they may have. Hearing it from an expert (yes, Mom or Dad is the expert) is much better than half-baked stories from their friends.

"Young teens not only want facts, they also want to know how it feels," says Steinberg. Throw in your values on love and relationships, abstinence until marriage, sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, religious convictions – basically anything that helps propel the conversation toward your preteen's understanding of sex, relationships and love as a whole concept. This type of conversation goes a long way toward shaping a teen's future. Preteens still value your opinion and welcome your input. Don't wait until much later when they've learned all they need to know from their friends.

Phone Use

Arranging dates, gossiping about school and sharing best friends' triumphs and tragedies is the heart of the preteen's social life. "Parents need to understand that the telephone is the adolescent's lifeline, the way he or she keeps in touch," says Steinberg.

However, if you have a very large family or several adolescents vying for phone time, this can be an endless battle. Setting specified time limits or phone schedules may alleviate some of the problem, as will installing a second phone line. Call waiting is another option and is available from most phone companies. So long as homework and chores are finished and kids aren't neglecting anything of importance, phone usage is usually not a big issue. Surely, allowing no phone calls through the dinner hour and late at night are reasonable policies to enforce from the start.

Online

Preteens are going online more than ever today. But don't neglect to speak with them about online safety issues. It's important that parents and kids are on the same channel when it comes to online activities. Discuss when kids can go online, how long they can stay online and what activities they can do while surfing the 'net.

Teach them that the 'net is a public forum. They should never post anything private that they wouldn't want the public to know. They should never give out their full name, school or any other information that reveals their identity. Preteens should never have an in-person meeting with someone they meet online. This is the biggest danger to kids' safety on the 'net. They can never be certain if people met online are who they say they are. And finally, teach preteens to never respond to e-mail or chat room messages that are inappropriate, obscene or in any way make them feel uncomfortable. "In reasonable doses, exploring the Internet is fine. Like any sort of entertainment, however, it can get out of hand," says Steinberg.

Establishing guidelines for behavior and activities will lay groundwork upon which preteens can build a structured and safe future. This will also lead to a smooth transition when the dating becomes one-on-one, and the activities progress from after-school dances to prom nights and limos. Parents must draw a fine line between granting freedoms and imparting autonomy, while still being present to provide input and information. Guiding and preparing preteens for the more serious issues to come is one of the biggest challenges parents face.

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