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Tweens “Dating” Tweens

The Delicate Dance of Middle-School Courtship


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

I always thought kids hated to practice. It’s an easy assumption to make if you’ve ever plunked down payments for piano lessons, then had to beg, badger, and bribe your kids to crack the “Teaching Little Fingers” songbook just once a damn week.

I’ve recently realized, though, there are some things kids love to practice. In fact, they spend much of their childhoods willingly rehearsing for life as a grown-up. They practice parenting by caring for baby dolls. They practice working by donning plastic stethoscopes and lugging toy briefcases around the house.

Starshine Roshell

And when they hit sixth grade, it turns out, they practice dating. My son has informed me that suddenly, and on an almost daily basis, girls are “asking him out.”

I try not to snicker, but the semantics alone amuse. Out … where? It’s a funny proposition for a child whose notion of “going out” still means hopping on his bike and cruising the cul-de-sac to spy on neighborhood cats.

“Where, um, do they want you to go?” I inquired the first time he told me.

“I don’t know,” he replied dubiously. “So I said, ‘No, thanks.’”

He has since informed me that “going out” simply means you like someone. “Not regular ‘like,’ but sixth-grade ‘like,’” he explained. “It means, ‘I’m attracted to you.’”

Seems reasonable. Heading into adolescence, these kids want to know if they’re couple-able, if they’re worthy of being a pair, if they like how it feels to be linked to someone outside of their long-standing, tight-knit, same-gender peer group. And, let’s face it, they want to see how their social standing shifts as a result of this amorous-ish association.

In our parents’ day, they called such coupling “going steady,” which sounds more like tightrope walking than sweetheart wooing. Our grandparents’ generation called it “going around together,” which makes sense for grammar school, since that’s really all these kids do.

“Mostly, it just means eating lunch together, maybe talking sporadically,” explained a 14-year-old I know who’s looooong past such tween nonsense and has a bonafide Facebook-official girlfriend now. “Other than that, it’s not really different than what it would be like to be friends.”

In typical kid-fashion, though, many want the prestigious “couple” title without having to earn it; they enlist friends—or technology—to help them pop the question. My nephew got asked via text.

“She said, ‘U want 2 go out with me?’ I typed ‘OK,’” he recounted. They never actually went anywhere, or even held hands, before she broke it off, saying she didn’t want a boyfriend—which is easy to understand. All that not-actually-doing-anything can really tax a gal’s social life.

I find the dynamics of these little-kids liaisons fascinating. I’ve learned that “going out” legitimizes what might otherwise be dismissed as a schoolgirl/schoolboy crush. You’re razzed for secretly “liking” someone, but respected for “going out” with them.

One mom, whose son is graduating junior high, assures me that the “asking out” process is merely a “sweet, innocent, and probably healthy experience” that’s really just “practice for the Big Show in high school.”

Before then, though, I’m told that my son will have to learn the rigid protocol of middle-school courtship. “You must hug at certain times, and hold hands at certain times and places,” my newly wise friend informed me. “Occasional kisses become expected by the end of eighth grade, I think, and with very few exceptions, ‘dating’ is limited to group outings to movies.”

Her son concurred: “There are strict guidelines—almost like a moral code.”

Wait, now. Strict guidelines? Rigid protocol? Personal discipline?! Perhaps there’s hope for those piano lessons after all.

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Starshine Roshell is the author of Keep Your Skirt On.

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