Dear Dr. Brian,
Can you provide any backup for a mom who’s trying to explain why a 15-year-old boy shouldn’t date a 12-year-old girl? What is this world coming to?
Dear Mortified Mom,
The fact that a 15-year-old boy finds a 12-year-old girl attractive doesn’t necessarily mean that the boy is developmentally abnormal — boys’ hormones are raging at that age, and given variations in maturation rates, there’s also variation in how much younger a 12-year-old girl might actually appear, both physically and socially. But regardless, I think your instincts are absolutely correct that allowing them to date would be inappropriate, despite the fact that American culture seems to be portraying romantic and sexual behavior at younger and younger ages as “normal.” Three years is a lot bigger difference at 15 and 12 than it will be in another 10 years when they’re 25 and 22. Right now, it’s 20% of his entire life and 25% of hers. Despite any differences in maturation rates, they still ought to be at different places developmentally (psychologically, emotionally, physically) and in different peer groups (with which neither child’s peer bonding would be helped, in my opinion, by focusing a lot of his or her attention on a non-peer social relationship). There are also potential serious legal ramifications, for the boy particularly, if things were to get (or even to be alleged to have gotten) out of hand.
Here’s my overriding principle, though: At ages 12 and 15, neither one of them really ought to be “dating” anyone at all (in the sense of spending significant time with an opposite-sex friend absent any group context, adult supervision, etc.), age difference or not. I often talk about a power-responsibility continuum, along which children begin with 0% of the responsibility for their lives, and thus, 0% of the decision-making power over their lives. At age 18, though, those children will become adults — legally speaking at least — and then they’ll have both 100% of the responsibility and 100% of the decision-making power. So, rather than having them go from 0-100% without any practice taking responsibility and exercising decision-making power, I think that the ideal is for them to gradually, over time, throughout childhood and particularly adolescence, demonstrate progressive responsibility and be allowed to practice exercising commensurately-progressive decision-making power, while their parents are around to actively observe, guide, and as necessary, regulate the pace with which responsibility and power are passed from parents to child (because until a child reaches 18, the parents remain ultimately responsible for his or her physical, psychological, emotional, academic, and moral health).
One of the many specific areas in which I think adolescents need to gain some experience and practice exercising responsibility and power is whether, when, and how to spend time with members of the opposite sex, but again, I think that ought to be something that happens slowly, as track records of responsible decision-making are established, beginning in non-dating contexts, over the course of adolescence. I don’t think, for instance, that having sex is a responsible choice for a minor to make at any point (I don’t think that anybody who’s not prepared, if necessary, to meet all of the needs — financial, physical, psychological, emotional, moral, etc. — of a child ought to be having sex), but I think that dating (appropriate individuals, at appropriate ages, with appropriate parental guidance, after establishing track records of appropriate decision-making) can be done responsibly. I generally don’t think, however, that a 15-year-old could have established enough of a track record of responsible choices (particularly if he’s focusing his attention on a 12-year-old) to even be dating yet (other than, for example, attending a school-sponsored dance with a close-aged peer “date” with other peers and adult supervision present). Good instincts, Mortified Mom, and you can tell the 15-year-old I said so. He may not be happy now, but if he arrives at college without a criminal record, without an STD, without any dependents, and with a well-developed ability to make responsible choices where girls are concerned, he ought to look back and be glad.