Alec Greven’s handwritten pamphlet How to Talk to Girls (written when he was 9) sold like cupcakes at his suburban Colorado school book fair back in 2011. That same year, it became a New York Times best-selling book. Packed with newbie dating advice including, “If you like a girl, don’t be silly and goofy” and “Comb your hair; don’t wear sweats,” this pint-sized romance guru’s musings has continually had many parents wondering: “Is my ‘tween old enough to date?”
Chantal was totally unprepared when her son Liam, then 11, informed her he had a girlfriend. “I actually felt ill,” recalls the Saskatchewan mom of five boys. “I asked what he meant, what he did with her. And—surprise!—he didn’t want to talk about it.”
Three years later, Chantal spied her younger son, Josh, 10-and-a-half, using deodorant. “That’s how I found out about his girlfriend; he spent time with her at recess, holding hands. My second-youngest son Calem is nine; he’s been talking about wanting a girlfriend since he was six!”
“In many cases, these relationships are minor infatuations,” says Dr. Derek Swain, a Vancouver-based registered psychologist. “The notion of boyfriend/girlfriend is somewhat romantic at this age, but it’s not filled with the potential for intimacy that parents might be afraid of.” However, Dr. Swain adds parents should be mindful of their kids’ physical maturation as some relationships do have some casual sexual activity such as “scoring” achievements. “Some nine-year-olds are well into puberty, and their notions of boyfriend/girlfriend could be different from their classmates’,” he says, so good parental guidance is important.
Ontario mom Beth’s first chat about dating occurred when her oldest son Braeden, then 12, began taking an interest in a female classmate. “They were entering that “Does she like me? Do I like her?’ stage,” she notes. “I have strict rules: no dating, going for ice cream or to a movie alone.Braeden sometimes spends time with her in the halls and around the schoolyard. He wanted to buy her perfume for her birthday. I told him he could buy a CD.” Dr. Swain encourages parents to establish their boundaries early so kids will know what to expect. “If not, in a couple of years, it will be very difficult to do so.”
Two years ago, when Melissa’s daughter Neven was 10, boys started asking her out. “We went for a long drive,” recalls Melissa, an Alberta mom of four. “I told her it was okay to have a boyfriend, but kissing was not appropriate at this age.” When Neven returned from camp that summer with a boyfriend, Melissa kept the lines of communication wide open. “I know some of her friends hold hands; some have had their first kiss,” says Melissa, who recently hosted a get-together at her home for Neven’s friends and their boyfriends. “They watched TV, played some board games, and that was it.”
Dr. Swain warns that the more parents try to force their kids to divulge information, the more their ‘tween is going to keep things secret. Taylor says girls call her son on the phone and contact him through Instagram, and she acknowledges how he feels about each of them, “because I think that if you suppress that, they’ll start doing stuff behind your back.”
“Be curious and attentive,” advises Dr. Swain. “Invite this boyfriend or girlfriend over; get to know who that person is. There’s an evolving sense of trust in parental supervision; the more parental interaction there is, the more secure kids are and the more comfortable parents will be.”