The New Dating Game

Ruby Bugg knows a lot about teen dating. Never mind the fact that it has been many years since she was a teenager going on a date. As a counselor at East Chapel Hill High School, she has 1,500 teenagers to keep her informed. And dating is changing just as much as the teens themselves.

Gone are the days of arranging a date on Tuesday night for the coming weekend. Today’s teens get on their cell phones after school on Friday, making plans for that night. Forget the old rule that girls don’t call and ask boys on a date. Both can arrange the evening’s plans. And don’t worry about the good night kiss at the front door. Sex, drugs and drinking are the big issues of the day. With the rules and risks of the dating game evolving almost constantly, many parents are left running to just catch up.

Although dating isn’t the same as it was 20 years ago, local experts agree that the basics of parenting a dating teenager haven’t changed that much. It’s just more challenging.

“Parents need to stay involved and informed,” Bugg says. “It can be easy for parents to just sit back once their children get into high school. But this is a time when parents really need to become more aware and more involved.”

Setting curfews, asking questions and establishing rules and sticking with them are just some of the ways parents need to be involved. Knowing their children’s friends and their parents also continues to be a good idea.

“It is a great myth that parents do not need to be involved in their teen’s lives,” says Debbie LaMay, the nurse at East Chapel Hill High and a mother of two teens. “Keeping the lines of communications open is an important key.”

Knowing where the teens are going, whom they are going to be with, and what the plans are for the night are still some of the basics. Having teens call home when they move from one location to another or check in at a certain time are also good ideas. Experts say that the majority of teens have curfews, often around midnight.

“I have heard a police officer say that nothing good ever happens after midnight, and that certainly seems to be true,” LaMay says. “Frequently you hear about teens out at all hours of the morning. But parents need to set curfews and then enforce them.”

Parents need to stick together, says the Rev. Rick Wilkerson, youth pastor at First United Methodist Church in Cary.

“Parents need to get to know the other parents of their children’s friends,” he says. “They all need to be working together for the common good of their children.”

Today’s teens frequently gather at each other’s houses. If parents have a question about where their child is going and if there is going to be proper adult supervision, they need to pick up the phone and call the other parents. Proper supervision does not mean a parent must be constantly underfoot, but at least a known presence in the home.

“Kids are always looking for a home to go to,” Wilkerson explains. “We like to have them come to our house. This gives them a place to go. We know where they are and know they are getting the proper supervision.” Bugg believes that gathering in coed groups is a positive change in the dating arena. Going to a movie, playing video games at someone’s house, watching television, going out to eat and gathering at a coffee shop are common group activities for teens.

“It is not unusual for a group to even go to the prom together as just friends,” Bugg says. “Frequently groups of girls will go to the prom together. You don’t have to be in a steady relationship to go to the prom. This has opened activities, like the prom, for a lot more people which is a good thing.”

The age that teens start to date can vary. Parents need to make this decision based on the teen’s maturity and judgment – an age that can work for one teen might be too young for another. Since teenagers typically get their driver’s license at 16, that’s when many start dating.

“No one age is correct. It depends on the individual,” LaMay says. “It is a decision that each family must make.”

According to Bugg, some students at East Chapel Hill “school date.” Their parents will not allow them to date, so they spend all their free time at school with a boyfriend or girlfriend. Frequently, the parents do not even know about the relationship. If parents are too strict about the dating limits, teens usually will find a way to be together and can rebel, she said.

For many teens involved in steady relationships in high school, sex can become an issue. According to studies, a smaller proportion of youth between the ages of 15 and 17 are sexually active. Since 1991, teenagers reporting having sexual intercourse dropped by 5.7 percent, and the teen pregnancy rate is down 14 percent.

“Many teens feel it is OK to say no to sex today,” says Bugg. “Students feel more empowered to make these choices today.”

Dr. Barbara Risman, professor of sociology and director of the graduate program at N.C. State University, has focused much of her research on teen sexuality. Several of her studies indicate that the number of high school boys – but not girls – under 18 who remained virgins has increased. Today, the rates of high school boys and girls having sex are about the same.

“Teens are less likely to engage in casual sex, but they are not less likely to have sex,” Risman says. “Between 40 and 50 percent of teens engage in sexual activities before they can legally drink.”

Parents need to talk to their teens about sex and share their own moral beliefs, experts agree. But parents face a tough challenge when sex is such a part of the culture in the United States, Risman said.

“We must think teens are living in another culture than the rest of us,” she says. “Sex is used to sell videos, cars and even toothpaste. They are constantly exposed to it. Parents must encourage their teens to make thoughtful and good decisions about sex.”

Drugs and drinking are other issues facing parents of dating teens. Peer pressure often can lead good kids to make bad decisions. Once again, parents must share their own opinions with their teens, experts say. According to an annual survey for the government released in early December, teenagers are cutting their use of illicit drugs, cigarettes and alcohol. But teens are still using drugs.

“More teens are aware of the downside of alcohol and smoking,” Wilkerson says. “But there always needs to be some adult supervision no matter how good the kids are.” Give your kids the guidance and support they need as they navigate the rough waters of dating and adolescence. Times may have changed, but budding relationships are still as confusing and exciting as ever. Your kids will appreciate your interest and involvement in their lives.