Dating May Not be Good for Pre-teens, but Forbidding it May be Worse
Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, who star in the Twilight film series. Photograph: Everett Collection / Rex Feature
Dating May Not Be Good for Pre-teens, But Forbidding it May be Worse
In Nancy Mitford's novel The Pursuit Of Love, the narrator, Fanny, a desperate, lovelorn teenager, fantasises about having an affair with a pig farmer. Not because of his dashing good looks, or his sparkling personality, or even because they have flirted in the past. Fanny dreams of a future with the pig farmer because he is local, and not handsome enough to be out of reach for a shy, self-conscious pubescent girl.
I vividly remember identifying with Fanny, and thinking, aged 11, that I would go out with anyone who asked me, because I wanted to fall in love and be loved. Relationships seemed transformative and magical, and I would do anything for one of my own. Fortunately, I was never near any boys, and if one did try to speak to me on the bus, I'd instantly turn an unbecoming shade of maroon.
According to a Canadian study, being cripplingly shy was a lucky break. Research from the University of York in Toronto suggests that boys and girls who start dating at 11 are twice as likely to have unsafe sex, use alcohol and indulge in risky behaviours as they become teenagers. "Late developers", who don't start dating until they turn 14, have been found to experience fewer social or emotional difficulties in comparison.
So how should we deal with this phenomenon? By stopping all pre-teens from finding boyfriends or girlfriends, explaining "it's for your own good" as we lock them up in a room with no windows?
Longing for a relationship often marks the onset of puberty. I interviewed many teenagers when I worked for the magazine Bliss and most were very open about how puberty can be as distressing and challenging mentally as it is physically. The trouble isn't suddenly getting hair in funny places but the alarming influx of new emotions that no one seems to be able to teach you how to deal with.
These feelings may be connected with hormones, but dismissing each one as "hormonal" is going to make the most robust teen or pre-teen feel alienated. When puberty hits, everything deemed to be "too old" or "unsuitable" instantly becomes more desirable. And if you are young, you might not be able to access the other unsuitable things you desire, such as bottles of vodka and car keys, but you can probably find a boyfriend or girlfriend if you put your mind to it.
Dating isn't necessarily damaging at an early age, but it can be if the relationship is illicit. If a young person wants to be in one but feels their family isn't supportive of their choices, they won't want to talk about what they're going through and will start to rely on their new partner for emotional support instead. You might not think it's healthy for your teen or pre-teen to have a partner, but it's a lot healthier than forcing them to have a secret. They need to know they can turn to you and tell you what's going on, whether they feel pressured to do something they're not ready for, have their heart broken or just get bored.
If relationships are forbidden, it reinforces the idea that they're incredibly serious. In the same way that I hoovered up The Pursuit Of Love, 11-year-olds everywhere have read Twilight and everything else in the genre that it spawned. Twilight sells the idea that the only legitimate love is obsessive, impossible and boundary-crossing – and that first love must be perfect. Putting an obstacle like that in the path of a 11-year-old's first relationship will only reinforce the idea that love needs to be complicated in order to be worthy. If we take their feelings seriously, things won't get too serious too soon.