How is it that some people start dating at such a young age, and others are so much older before they begin to have dates? Both teen-agers and their parents often wonder what is the best age to begin dating. The question looms even more nowadays because so many young people start their dating so early in life. Should parents be concerned? Is there really a special age at which dating should begin?
WHEN TEEN-AGERS START DATING
The Purdue Opinion Panel Poll of high school students reported in 1957 that 31 per cent of the boys and 40 per cent of the girls started to date before they were fourteen years old. This means that a good many teen-agers begin to date before they get into high school. It also confirms the observation that girls, in general, tend to mature earlier and start dating earlier than boys, age for age.
But still another finding of the Purdue Poll of tenth, eleventh and twelfth grade high school students is that one out of eight teen-agers doesn’t date at all! How come that some young people start having dates even before they’re in high school, and others have no dating experience whatsoever during their teens? What do teen-agers themselves have to say on this subject?
THE TEENS TALK …
When thousands of representative high school students were asked the question, “At what age do you think teen-agers should have their first date?” 41 per cent answered thirteen to fourteen, and 46 per cent said fifteen to sixteen. Such replies indicate that most students feel that the first date should occur in the middle or early teens. It also suggests that many teen-agers appear to date earlier than they really think they should. Why? Who is it that starts dating earliest?
The Early Bird
The Purdue University survey found that high school students living in the western part of the United States start dating at earlier ages than do southern young people (47 per cent of those in the West as compared with 34 per cent of the southerners). Even more interesting is the finding that young people from the higher socioeconomic groups start dating at younger ages than do those from either the middle-income or the lower-income groups.
WHY SOME DATE EARLIER THAN OTHERS
There are interlocking reasons why some teen-agers start having dates at earlier ages than do others. Such factors as these are all interrelated: (1) how their parents feel about early dating; (2) how ready the boy or girl is for dating; (3) how much social experience a young person has had; and (4) how many social opportunities there are open to a given age and social set.
The Folks at Home
Parents who are socially active themselves tend to encourage their sons and daughters to participate in social events from early ages. They arrange mixed parties for their children, send them to dancing classes, buy them the proper clothes for various occasions, and in every way they can, urge them into social situations. The Purdue Poll finding that dating starts earlier in higher socioeconomic groups is understandable. Young people whose parents are socially active have the opportunity to socialize freely from childhood onward. They are acquainted with the children of their parents’ friends long before they reach their teens. They are involved with neighbors, church, and community activities. Their parents expect this—they urge their children into the social life of the community so that they will eventually take then-place in their social circles.
Ambitious middle-class parents more often want their sons and daughters to pay attention to school work and vocational goals before they get distracted by dating. Families with a different socioeconomic background and outlook, on the other hand, expect their children to get jobs as soon as they can and help out at home even before school graduation.
So it is easy to see how such widely different dating habits exist. Some teen-agers are pressured into dates early by then-families, and others are pressured by parents into postponing dates as long as possible.
At Your Own Pace
Of course, some teen-agers are ready for dates before others are. They simply mature earlier. The boy who shoots up tall and manly in his early teens is ready for dates before the “shorty” in his class. The girl who develops early so that she fills a strapless evening gown gracefully is datable at a time when her schoolmates are still looking and behaving like little girls.
The late-maturing boy or girl is just not as interested in the other sex and consequently not as interesting as a dating partner either. But the time will come when the slower-developing youngsters of both sexes catch up. Such a “late-bloomer” should be reassured that there is nothing wrong with maturing late. In fact, there are advantages. The girl who doesn’t go “boy-crazy” has opportunities to develop lasting intellectual and cultural interests, to make close friends among other girls, to excel in some skill or art. Certainly the late-maturing youngster need not feel “queer.” For a boy, this “breathing spell” between childhood and manhood is an opportunity to get a good start on vocational training, to develop meaningful hobbies, and even to enjoy his family more than is possible for the precocious lad who spends so much of his time and energy on dates. Even so, the late-maturing girl or boy may feel out of things for a while simply because he or she is not personally ready for dates yet.
The young person who has belonged to social groups since he was a child slips into dating situations more easily during adolescence than does the youngster who was not socially active as a child. Why? Because he has developed social skills that the less experienced youngster has yet to learn
He knows how to carry on a conversation, how to handle an introduction, how to dance, how to eat properly, how to accept and to refuse an invitation. All these and many other social skills are learned in action with other people.
Some boys and girls pick up the normal courtesies and social behaviors as a matter of course during their childhood. They are fortunate—and don’t suffer the embarrassment that confronts teen-agers who have not had such opportunities.
The young person with limited social experience must tackle the tasks of becoming socially comfortable with other people in a variety of situations as he approaches dating age. This is not always easy, but it must be done before he can feel at ease in dating situations.
It’s Up to You
Occasionally one finds a young person who bitterly blames his lack of social success on his background. He feels that because he grew up on the wrong side of the tracks or in a lower-income family, he is behind the eight ball. This kind of attitude is self-defeating and unfortunate. It’s not confined to teen-agers either, but is common among those of every age who waste energy complaining about their lack of advantages, rather than using it to improve their lot.
Vernon is the kind of fellow who might have been licked by his background. His family lived in a shabby house in the poorest part of town. His father was hardly the kind of man of whom any boy could be proud, and his mother was little better. Vernon never was allowed to invite friends to his home, and he had to forego belonging to clubs and organizations in order to work and help support his family. But Vernon wouldn’t let circumstances defeat him. His gay spirit and wit and his talent for telling a good story took him into many a group as he became older. And his sympathy for the underdog, his concern for the underprivileged, won him a place in one after another project from grammar school onward. Like many of the world’s great men, he made stumbling blocks into stepping stones and rose above his handicaps.
Any young person has the answer to his social problems within himself. When he really wants to, he can grow in his ability to win friends and acceptance. Often the person who has to forge a place for himself develops a special charm that more privileged individuals lack. A person’s true individuality is his own to develop—in his own way and at his own pace throughout life.
WHAT ARE THE CHANCES?
Do you have a real opportunity for dating? This is the key factor which determines when you begin to date. If you have no one to go with, then you can’t date, no matter how ready you are. If there are few social events in your school or community attended by both boys and girls, your dating may again be delayed—that is, unless you take matters into your own hands. Creating opportunities of your own may be hazardous, or it may make the difference between dating or not dating at all. So let’s look at some of the factors involved.
Offered—Friends and Fun
Some schools, churches, and communities provide plenty of opportunities for young people to date and become socially expert. They offer a good youth program in which any young person can find friends and activities, and they encourage wholesome interrelationships between the sexes.
When the social program is combined with opportunities for discussing and reviewing one’s personal progress, young people have a real advantage. During the teen years, and on into young adulthood, most persons of both sexes are striving to find themselves, to become accepted as persons as well as dating partners. They need to know not only what is expected of them on a date, but how to develop into attractive and interesting men and women.
Schools, churches, and youth-serving agencies provide many-faceted programs in which young people can find themselves and their interests—and share those interests. Often they themselves help initiate social boy-girl programs as well as informal and regular courses that prepare for wholesome dating experiences.
“A Stranger in Town”
Sometimes a young person finds himself in a strange town where he knows few, if any, datable young people. Perhaps he has transferred to a new school or this is his first year away at college. The question is—how to make the friends that lead to dating?
It’s natural for a girl or boy in a new place to feel insecure among strangers. “Will they like me?” “What do they expect of me here as a person?” “How can I get to know the people I’ll like and who will like me?” These and many other questions keep arising.
A teen-ager in such a situation may avoid new people just because he’s afraid of making a wrong impression. The result then is that others think of him as a snob and avoid him. How much better to do something positive to get into the swing of things! A boy or girl in a strange new school could join a club, get a spot on the school paper, try out for the glee club, the drama group, the hockey team, or get on a committee. Just telling the school counselor or home room teacher of your eagerness to get into activities is a good start. Once the ice is broken, the rest is relatively easy.
Possibly your dating experience is hampered by the fact that you are attending an all-boys’ or all-girls’ school. Then it’s necessary to date people from other schools if you date at all. Your school may plan mixed parties with another school. Young people that you meet at such functions will probably be suitable as dates.
Going out with students from other schools can be fun—if it’s not overdone. Dating people outside your school to the exclusion of the boys and girls in your class is a mistake. As a teen-ager you need to be in with a group that has similar interests and is near enough for a Coke and chatter after school.
A Word to the Wise
Most teen-agers stick pretty well within one group for their dates and parties. Occasionally, however, you may be invited to a party where some of the guests are strangers to you. Suppose, while you’re there, you meet a boy who seems nice and who wants to take you home. How will you know if he’s a suitable escort? There are some things you may want to consider before giving him your answer.
You might ask the adult in charge of the party about the boy and his reputation. Or you might speak with the hostess. If these people speak well of the fellow, you could accept his invitation. But first make sure that he hasn’t brought another girl to the party, whom he is planning to ditch. You don’t want to be the cause of someone else’s discomfort.
If there is some question about the boy’s reputation, or if no one at the party knows him well enough to say, the safest thing is to stay out of the situation. If you’d like to get to know him better, you might suggest that another couple whom you know well join you in riding home. If no one else is going your way, you can politely refuse this time, and invite him to your house some afternoon to meet your parents and listen to records. As you get to know him better, you’ll learn whether or not he’s the kind of person you’d like to date.
Blind dating is a legitimate way to meet people, but there are a few things to consider before you go into it. First of all, who is making the arrangements? How well do you know this person? How responsible is he or she? How much does he know about your prospective dating partner?
If there is any uncertainty about the blind date, it may be best to decline with thanks or suggest some safe dating situation. You might, for instance, suggest an informal party with several other couples you know. Perhaps your church group is having an outing to which the blind date might be invited as your guest. In blind dating, a good principle is: Take advantage of opportunities, but provide safeguards.
If you’re going out with a boy or girl whom you don’t know well, it’s best to avoid public places the first time. In fact, even if you know your date well, some public places are just not suitable for young people. Many public dance halls, for instance, draw an unscrupulous crowd of people who could cause a difficult situation for you and your date. Bars and roadside taverns have people in them occasionally who might cause trouble. Roaming the streets with or without an escort is risky in certain parts of town.
Likewise, people you meet in public places are rarely suitable dating prospects. Those boys sitting behind you and your girl friends in the movies might quite possibly be nice, but they might also turn out to be roughnecks. It’s much better to ignore them than to take a chance. The boy who cuts in at a community dance may look cute, but he might be more than you can handle if you let him take you home without finding out about him first. As a general rule, it’s safer to stay with people you know or have met through suitable channels.
Pickups are risky. It may seem adventurous to stand on a corner and pick up a likely-looking person, but it can be dangerous. The papers are filled with unhappy, sometimes tragic, incidents of teen-agers who took such wild chances. People who use the pickup system are those who for some reason cannot use the ordinary channels for meeting people.
Boys sometimes congregate on corners to whistle at passing girls. It may feel good to be whistled at, but unless you know the boys, it’s not wise to encourage them. Many fellows feel that an easy pickup is “fast,” or else she wouldn’t be out looking for a date in that fashion.
This is not just a matter of concern to girls. Boys too can be exploited by unscrupulous women whom they pick up. There are less risky ways of getting dates than picking them up on street comers.
Safe and Sane
If you want a safe place to meet people—and a place that promises wholesome fun—first look toward your church. Many churches have young people’s programs with activities designed to help you make and keep friends of both sexes. People you meet in a church group are generally the kind who are responsible and respectable.
Community centers, YMCAs, YWCAs, USOs, and neighborhood clubs provide all kinds of interesting programs for teen-agers and young adults. If you want more friends, explore some of your local resources and before you know it you’ll be deep in activity.
FOLLOW YOUR INTERESTS
The key to the whole question of finding suitable dating partners lies within yourself. If you’re interested in acting, you’ll find the kind of date you would enjoy more quickly by joining a dramatic club or class than by hanging around the locker rooms at school. Not only that—but you and this new friend would have a common interest from the very first, which would help overcome the initial problem of what to say to your date.
If there is no dramatic club in your vicinity you might start a little play-acting group. Invite some of your friends who also like to act for the purpose of creating a skit for a school or church meeting.
If you like to sing or play a musical instrument, the school or local community choral group or band would be a good place to meet eligible dating partners with similar interests.
Somewhere there is a group or organization that will fit your interests and provide datable companions.
There’s no one age at which anyone is old enough to have dates. In general, young people today date at an earlier age than did their own parents. Girls usually begin to have dates at an earlier age than do boys. Some young people of both sexes start dating in junior high school, or even earlier, while others are out of senior high school before they really begin to have dates. Some parents urge their sons and daughters to mingle with others of their age and to go out with mixed groups from the time they’re children. Other parents reluctantly permit their young people to have dates even when they are well into their teens. These and many other factors make a difference in the age at which any particular person begins to date.
You’re old enough to have dates when you’re mature enough to assume responsibility for your dating behavior, when you have learned enough social poise to get and keep a date, and when you have convinced your parents and others interested in you of your readiness for these special boy-girl experiences.
The age at which you start to date is not as important as is how you behave when you do begin. Popularity as a goal in itself is empty, and dating at any cost is self-defeating. The boy or girl who starts out with an exploitive, cheap, sexy, blind-alley kind of approach may be seriously hurt and handicapped in the long run. The young person who starts with real interest in others and with eagerness to cultivate sincere friendships is on the happy road to satisfying relationships with boys and girls, men and women, through the years ahead.