I still remember the day I came back after a student exchange programme from the UK; my mother had this unusual expression on her face, there was some question that kept haunting her, but she never asked me,” says Aditi Rao.
Yes, many mothers like me ‘fear’ one thing — is my kid dating someone? Love, no doubt, is a feeling that all crave for and rather live for. But it is also true that it is like a fruit that has to be savoured at the right time. We live in a time when everything is happening a little too fast. Children are getting into relationships and affairs pretty early on in life today.
Just like in the West, India is also witnessing a change with seventh to eighth graders talking about ‘dating’ someone. Add to this the dominating landscape of media on our lives and you get a mess. “Adolescents get easily influenced with what they see in popular culture — films, TV and music. Also, there is a lot of peer pressure regarding dating. Social media culture doesn’t help either,” says Dr Vipul Rastogi, consultant — neuropsychiatry, Medanta, Gurgaon.
Dr Veena Chakravarthy, psychotherapist and counsellor from Bengaluru, feels that peer pressure has a major role to play why many young boys and girls have the urge to have a boyfriend or a girlfriend. “Oh, you don’t have a boyfriend” is one common retort that Rachana Arun often gets whenever she interacts with her peers. “I am an eleventh grader and in today’s world, I am expected to have had atleast five ex-boyfriends by now; if not, I am probably not cool,” she says.
So, does this mean 13 is the new 18 when it comes to dating? “I don’t know if 13 is the new 18. But yes, it is true that children nowadays are beginning to date and act more independent at a younger age,” says Dr Lavina Ahuja, personal development consultant, Lifeworks, Dubai. Broad definitions
“Dating is best described with the idiom ‘testing the water’. You may be attracted to one aspect of somebody’s personality and it is a way of knowing them better,” says Dr Vipul. The simplest explanation I have ever received was from my little one is: “Dating is going out with a boy to a cafe for a cup of coffee.”
So, what’s the right age for dating? Dr Lavina feels there is no right age for dating. “Maturity does come with age, but it is not necessary. I think the most important factor is having a sense of your self as an individual and being able to say ‘no’. This can be anywhere between 15-18 years old,” she avows. “All my friends have children too young to date but from the experiences of my older cousins and aunts whose daughters were or are dating, some of them are able to let go off their fears and trust their daughters to make the right choices in life. They say they have given their kids the right foundation to go out there and protect themselves emotionally and physically, if need be,” says Shilpa Deshpande.
“According to me, the right age for dating should be 17-18 years. They are more mature than 15-or 16-year-olds and have usually been into group dating and generally are more aware,” says Dr Veena.
Love, like every other emotion, cannot be bottled up or ignored. So, the best thing a parent can do is to talk to their kids about it. Equipping children with tools will indeed go a long way in helping them cross the hurdles on their own. In their book Positive Discipline for Teenagers, authors Jane Nelsen and Lynn Lott suggest, “If your teen feels ready to date, let it be, but stay involved and vigilant and be open to discussions.” Including the teen’s date in family activities is one of the small steps in empowering the teen, they recommend. How far this can be emulated in an Indian family is something questionable.
Dr Vipul has a progressive attitude towards dating; he feels it prepares one for life. “Dating is probably essential these days. The good and bad experiences from dating shape and prepare you for future when stakes are much higher in life. On the flip side, it also has a potential of scarring somebody for a long time. A bad experience can damage self-esteem and confidence. Western society, in general, has been much more open about dating than its Indian counterpart.” he explains.
What can parents do?
“My daughter gets upset because the moment she talks to a boy in her class, her friends make fun of her saying that he is her boyfriend. This is when I feel teachers and parents have a bigger to role to play in making the child understand that one is free to talk to anyone and gender should never make any difference,” says Deepika Rai, a mother of two.
As parents, should we discourage, not pay much heed to it or reflect on our relationship with the child? Some suggest not giving it the due attention, as it would fizzle out in no time, while many stress the need to communicate. “Parents need to talk more openly to kids about love, attraction, hormones and friendship. They should always emphasise how love is above everything else and one should not mislead someone else or play with other’s emotions. Such open conversations help form a bond and make the kids feel safer and confident to talk about their relationships and friendships with their parents,” says Dr Veena.
We shape our child’s wellbeing, both physical and emotional. As parents, one is ready to go to any extent. But Dr Vipul says restraint to some level is essential. “The problem with parents is to know how and where to draw the line. If they completely say ‘no’, then it will lead to conflict in the household, but saying ‘yes’ will cause lot of anxiety for parents. I think the best approach should be a cautious one,” he says. Dr Lavina suggests, “Do not talk down to them. It is best for parents to learn to have a non-judgmental and supportive relationship. That doesn’t mean the parent doesn’t guide the child with their wisdom but start treating your child like they are getting to be adults because that is exactly what is happening,” she adds.
Psychologist Madeline Levine, in her book Teach Your Children Well, suggests keeping an eye on the kind of friends children make, for at this stage they listen more to their peers than to their parents. She writes that thoughtful, academically motivated kids with healthy and connected families will have a better influence on the child than those who loath school and engage in risky behaviour.