Meet the Parents

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// by Tracy Jones

In Colonial times, dating occurred when men travelled from home to home and slept in the same bed as a potential wife, a practice known as “bundling,” and encouraged by family members.

By the Victorian era, parents of single women would place a lit candle in the front window to attract potential suitors.

Independence brought on by cars and technology eventually allowed daters to rely less on parents to find a partner. Now, many parents are unsure when, and if, their children should date, and how they can best protect their children without actually being there.

“The role of parents in the dating process has changed significantly over time,” says Heather Downs, a sociology professor at Jacksonville University who specializes in family dynamics. “Now young people have the ability to date without the knowledge of their parents—their cell phone or social media allow for them to set up and manage their own dates.”

Sociologists say parents who discuss dating and sex with teens are more likely to have children who use protection when they have sex, wait longer to have sex and have teens who are more likely to discuss their relationships with their parents.

It's an important dialogue to have with teens before they start dating, Downs says. In Duval County, nearly 46 percent of high schoolers say they are sexually active. Many of the local students surveyed also say they participated in unprotected sex, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Parents should also establish firm rules with their dating children and expect them to stick to those guidelines, says Theresa Rulien, president and CEO of Child Guidance Center in Jacksonville and a licensed marriage and family therapist. Good rules include having children check in when they change locations and parents meeting the person before the date begins.

“It is your responsibility as a parent to ask all those questions,” she says. “Expect the eye rolling, just get your answer—as a parent, you don't need to be afraid to be nosy.”

Parents' biggest fear is often the loss of control when their child begins dating, Rulien says. But if parents allow their child to date under their household, it allows parents to show their children how to model appropriate relationships.

Rulien also says setting a firm curfew is important so the child, and their date, can show they respect parents' rules. In fact, Rulien currently has a 19-year-old living with her, and he has a curfew. When his friends started making fun of him because of it, he said, “It's because somebody loves me, and that's why I have a curfew.”

April Lawson is a nurse and mother of three children. Her two daughters are now 19 and 21, and she also has a 16-year-old son.

She talked to her children about sex when they were 11 years old, she says. Lawson volunteered with the Northeast Florida Healthy Start Coalition educating local teens about sex, so she already knew how to broach the topic.

She started by showing her children pictures of sexually transmitted infections and explaining the importance of safe sex. Her daughters began dating at 16, but only with someone else present.

“I didn't let them be alone with a boy,” she says. “I felt if they were alone together, they would have to make a choice between 'I want to do this' or 'I don't.'”

Like Rulien suggests, Lawson set firm guidelines she expected her children to follow.

She always knew where they were, who they were with and kept a book with phone numbers and contact information of her children's friends. In her girls' cell phone, she was listed as “Patrol” rather than “Mom.” But she says she doesn't regret keeping close watch on her children, because they felt comfortable talking to her about dating and sex.

“Just let them know you can talk openly about it,” she says.