Every parent’s rules around “dating” are different, so what happens when they collide? Parents.com’s ‘Ask Your Mom’ advice columnist Emily Edlynn, Ph.D. weighs in on how to stay out of another family’s relationships while still teaching honesty and respect for family rules.

By Emily Edlynn, Ph.D.
December 23, 2019
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Illustration by Emma Darvick

Dear Torn,

I do not envy your position! This is one of those situations that probably elicits a range of opinions and reactions from other parents, depending on their own stance. I mean, who hasn't joked about how their kids can't start dating until age 30? Of course, this doesn't actually happen, but it hints at a general discomfort about our "babies" entering the more mature world of dating.

As usual, there is not one right answer, but many considerations. How are these two lovebirds actually "dating," across the continuum of innocent to more, ahem, involved? This affects the next layer, deceit versus honesty, which dominoes right into the parent-child relationship.

Define "Dating," Then Act

Let's start with the first question: What is "dating?" I have heard elementary school kids use this term to represent occasional, awkward hand-holding at school, and lots of attention from peers about the "boyfriend-girlfriend" pair. It involves no alone time. Not even leaving school grounds. This type of "dating" is merely an idea younger kids are trying out the idea without fully understanding it. These are typically fairly short-lived relationships and do not require covert operations. I like this because the answer is easier: no need to get involved.

But if the "dating" means texting long love letters in the pursuit of developing a real romance or has them actually going out on dates and spending a lot of alone time together, I might have to intervene. Both situations are more involved, and as a psychologist, I know secrecy in families never ends well. As a mother, I couldn't infringe this far on another parent's rules. Of course, this also interferes with my son's happiness, which would tie me up in knots!

Here are some ideas for what to do in this precarious position:

Find out why dating is "forbidden"

A huge positive here is that your son trusts you enough to let you know that his sweetheart isn’t allowed to date. As usual, asking more questions and listening without quick judgment keeps these important communication lines open.

Key questions: What do her parents actually mean by “no dating?” Why do they have this rule—are there cultural factors at play? How is his love interest handling this with her parents—what does she tell them about him? What happens if she breaks the “no dating” rule—is she grounded, or is there a more extreme consequence like being sent away to a private school?

Give guidance 

Gathering all of this information helps you know how to best guide your son and his girlfriend. The situation gets to the heart of trust and deceit, and it's important to teach and model for your son that lying and sneaking around is not healthy. It's not good for their relationship, or for the girl's relationship with her parents.

After understanding why her family has the rule, I would have a conversation with my son and steer him and his girlfriend toward honesty with her parents. I know that if I approached her parents directly without speaking to my son first, it could cause extreme trust issues within my own family.

If and only if these conversations with my son didn’t result in them coming clean with her parents, I would include his girlfriend in the conversation and suggest she speak with her parents. I would wait to speak with her to respect her parents' role as her authority figures and to support the ideal scenario of direct communication between the girl and her parents with little outside interference.

The very last, but necessary, resort would be to let my son and his girlfriend know that I would need to be honest with her parents if she couldn’t speak to them herself. I would then be prepared for possible heartbreak for my son if this meant the end of their relationship, reminding myself that pain is part of learning and growing up.

Reverse the scenario

As much as I would look for every opportunity to address the situation without myself directly telling the parents, if it came to this, I would remind myself: How would I feel if another parent kept this secret from me?

In parenting, we are going to run into different approaches, some of which we may wholeheartedly oppose, but it's not up to us to decide what is best for other families. They have the right to their own rules, and we have the right to ours, as we will likely explain on repeat throughout pre-teen and teenage years. It's hard enough to toe the line with our own children, we wouldn't want other parents making it even harder.

Even answering this question made my stomach hurt, so I wish you the best in dealing with this in real life!

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

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