You’re gonna wanna put a bullet in your head when she finally brings home a boyfriend.
– Friend of PracticalDad, 1994
This friend commented the above to me over lunch prior to Eldest’s birth and it was funny in the moment, especially since his girl was 15 and my unborn was seeming light years away from that point. But time passes quicker than you realize and suddenly, she’s talking about boys and soon there’s some acne-riddled, pubescent bucket of testosterone staring you in the face. Dear God, he was right…shoot me now.
Whether it’s a boyfriend or a son’s girlfriend, how do you even begin to handle it? The teen years are a time of massive change and that’s the way that it should be, with the bodies growing and changing and the brains literally rewiring themselves during that period. Part and parcel of that process is the development of sexuality, typically in the opposite gender but occasionally in the same. Regardless of the orientation, there is so much for them to learn…most especially how to treat and interact with someone with whom they’re interested. So understand that it’s coming and prepare yourself for the day, because it will arrive.
So what should you consider? So much of how you respond will depend upon your own values; it’s fine if you disagree with what I write, but accept it simply as a point of departure for your own conversations and decisions.
First, understand that the kids are a blank slate in most areas and will learn from watching you, even when you’re unaware of it. Think about how you interact with your "significant other" on a daily basis. As much as I hate using that term, the reality is that there are now ex-wives and husbands, live-in/unmarrieds, girlfriends and even boyfriends; regardless of the status, how do you treat that person and how do you display affection? It isn’t necessarily an overt decision and display, but understand that they will take their cues from you. The flip side of this is that if they’re allowed to spend hours each day in front of unsupervised television and computer, what they’ll learn about sexuality and the treatment of others is going to vastly different from what you’ll think is appropriate or warranted. This is one of the primary reasons that we enforced the rules on electronics usage from an early age.
Second, understand that your child’s definition of dating, boyfriend and girlfriend might be radically different from your own adult definition. I was surprised one evening by Eldest, in her sixth grade year, when she asked at the dinner table if she could have a boyfriend. It’s fortunate that my wife took the lead and in the ensuing conversation, found that her definition was far more simplistic than I envisioned and it was innocent enough that I didn’t have a stroke. It also however, led to overt discussion about behaviors and further conversations about attitudes and morality.
Third, is there a specific age at which you’ll actually permit the child to actually go out with someone? Eldest and Middle both had dating relationships at the age of 15, albeit with ground rules, fixed transportation arrangements and curfews. But I spoke with another parent the other evening and they were adamant in not permitting their child to date until 17, noting that their principal responsibility during the earlier years was the schoolwork. While I can respect that, part and parcel of the teen years is learning how to manage relationships.
Fourth, what are your expectations and your ground rules? Be sure to communicate these clearly and explicitly to the kids, including the repercussions if these are broken. In the PracticalDad household, no boyfriend or girlfriend can visit unless one of the adults is present and all doors must remain open; there is a clear understanding that we also have access to all areas of the house so that we’re free to come down to the basement mechanical room – adjacent to the family room – at any time. There have been instances when I’ve gone there simply to prove that I can. What are the transportation arrangements? Who has to be home and when, and how are they getting there? There have been occasions when the teen relationships have taken a back seat to other business simply because plans weren’t checked out with me in advance. What are the guidelines – if any – on public displays of affection? It’s been a point here since we’ve actively opened the household to the significant others but there’s still a younger sibling in elementary school and he doesn’t need to be exposed to too much. if we’re going to control it on the screen, then we’re going to control it here as well.
Fifth, how much do you want to include the significant others in family life? Are there family events or evenings that are off-limits to outsiders or are you willing to open them up? One of the things that you should consider is that there are more than a few teens with no significant adult supervision or involvement in their lives and being inclusive not only allows you to keep a better eye on what’s going on, it also allows them the opportunity to see the workings of an involved and active family. It doesn’t mean that your family is perfect, but it’s a sad fact that at least you have an engaged family while these kids might not. Accept it as a truism that kids coming from situations in which there isn’t an active and engaged family will want to spend time with your own family; and the other truism is that you will in turn begin to care for them regardless of their status with your kid. I know of situations in which the ex-boyfriends and girlfriends continue to maintain contact even after their own relationship has ended.
Many fathers aren’t aware of the power of their own example until the kids are old enough to begin their own tentative relationships. Understand now that the sons will see how you treat your mate and model that accordingly and your daughters will learn how they in turn should be treated. There will always be disagreements and fights, but it’s the manner in which they’re handled that makes the difference.