What Age to Start Dating?

What Age to Start Dating?

originally published on March 19, 2001; updated May 22, 2021

Dear Sex Ed Mom,
My 13-year-old wants to know when they can start dating IRL (“in real life”); isn’t this a bit young? I didn’t start in-person dating until I was 16 and I don’t want my kids to date IRL until then either. But the times are changing, and I don’t want to be a prude. Should I let them date IRL earlier?
–IRL Dating Dilemma

Dear IRL Dating Dilemma,
Yes, the times are always changing. It seems like kids today want a lot more freedom and at an earlier age than we did. But that doesn’t mean they are automatically more responsible and able to handle difficult social situations any better than we were. It’s still our job as parents to provide protection and guidance to our kids. While the dating issue usually causes parents a great deal of angst and fear, it also presents an excellent opportunity to help our kids become more independent and to develop healthy decision-making skills.

Below are some of my suggestions for establishing IRL dating rules:

Discuss what dating is and its purpose early on — around ages 7-9.

Breakdown the different types of dating and discuss with your pre-teen what age they think they should be allowed to engage in the different types of dating, and why they think that is a good age. You may be able to compromise until you can agree on an age range.

Agree to revisit the “dating rules” later — they may need to be renegotiated.

Talk to other parents to find out what their household dating rules are (this will especially help when you hear, “But, Sage’s parents let them date …”).

Stick with your rules (and consequences of breaking them) regardless of what your child’s friends parents are supposedly doing.

I also recommend allowing a gradual level of freedom when it comes to dating instead of having one set age for all types of dating. Here is a sample of “dating rules” you might like to review when developing your own rules:

Group Dating
Before 9 p.m. Ages 11-13 (includes school dances, early movies, or other adult chaperoned events)

Double Dating
Weekend curfew: 10-11 p.m. Ages 14-15 (includes movies, dances, some unchaperoned events)

Single Dating
Weekend curfew: midnight-1 a.m. Ages 16+

As your child is allowed to participate in different types of dating you will set up more specific rules about curfew, meeting the person(s) they will be out with first, when to call or text you, etc.

Be sure to let me know the dating rules that you and your daughter come up with together. Have fun compromising (or not). 

P.S. It is also important to be up to speed on the latest lingo and acronyms that youth now use for dating, sex and relationships.  I learned a lot from this fact-checked, online resource for parents: Making Sense of Teen Dating Lingo (VeryWellFamily.com)

Helping Teens Deal with Heartbreak

Helping Teens Deal with Heartbreak

originally published on April 16, 2001; updated May 15, 2021

Dear Sex Ed Mom,
My shy, 17-year-old son has just been through two break ups and is suffering so. He is so depressed because he really loved the person he was dating. He doesn’t want to talk about it but I need to do something. What can I do?
–Mom of Brokenhearted

Dear Mom of Brokenhearted,
Ah yes, this is probably the toughest part of parenting — watching your kids have their hearts broken. Almost everyone has gone through this and unfortunately there is no magic cure or pill you can give to your son. He will need to grieve and may not want to talk to anyone about it for a while. That doesn’t mean you just have to sit back and watch him suffer though. Here are some suggestions that might help your son to heal faster and eventually snap him out of his depression.

Explain the situation to your son’s father or another adult male whom your son has a close relationship. Ask him if he would be willing to talk to your son about the relationship break ups he went through as a teen and beyond (maybe he could even take your son to a movie to get him out of the house). This will help your son realize that he is not alone; break ups happen to everyone. He will also see that he will survive to love again; just as his dad (or adult male friend) did.

Once your son is ready to talk to you about it, you should also share with him the break ups you went through as a teen or adult. (Of course if you didn’t have any, it is okay to share another person’s story).

Sharing and passing on break up stories can also be introduced to younger kids when you first start discussing what dating is all about. This way, they might be a little better prepared for future break ups. And they will remember that when relationships end it can be a difficult process, but one most of us survive and learn from.

Thanks for the great question and I’ll be thinking “heart mending” thoughts for your son.

Should I wait until he asks?

Should I wait until he asks?

originally published on November 15, 1999; updated April 30, 2021

Dear Sex Ed Mom,
I have a 3-year-old and I want to know if I should talk to him about sex, babies and where they come from. Or, do I wait until he asks me?
–hurry mom

Dear Hurry Mom,
Sexuality education does start at the very beginning. There is no such thing as starting too early. Even three-year-olds can begin to learn about healthy sexuality. It’s just a matter of what is appropriate, in terms of age and development, for your child.

Here is a list of some basic sexuality information you should be teaching your three-year-old:

Accurate basic terminology for external genitalia (penis, testicles, vulva, clitoris, urethra) — explaining that urine/pee comes out of the penis for males and it comes out of the urethra for female bodies. The urethra is a very small hole between the clitoris and vagina.

The concept that “his body belongs to him” and he has the right to say NO to unwanted touching on any part of his body — even by authority figures like parents, teachers or doctors.

How babies are made/where babies come from. Here is a sample script:

It takes two people to make a baby — just like it takes 2 animals. When people are older their bodies start to make sperm (for those with testicles/males) and eggs (for those with ovaries/females). Sperm has to meet up with an egg. If an egg and sperm get together, they make a fertilized egg. This egg can grow inside the female’s body in a special place near the tummy called a uterus. The fertilized egg grows to become a baby that is born in about 9 months. We call this time that a baby grows inside the uterus of a female, pregnancy.”

This is simple enough for most three-year-olds. You may want to also add that only females with a uterus can get pregnant and give birth. A children’s book that explains how babies are made in very simple and gender-neutral language is, What Makes a Baby by Cory Silverberg (Seven Stories Press, 2012). Perhaps you could read this with your son and tell him the role he could someday play in making a baby.

That he should be able to ask you any questions he has — tell him this often so he knows that you are truly an askable parent. If you don’t know the answers or what to say, do some research or read more of my columns for some pointers. And, don’t forget to include your values with the accurate information.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, simply a good place to start. You should also provide this information in a gradual, ongoing manner rather than having just one quick (or long) talk. You may also get the same questions over and over again so you will need to be ready to repeat the “sex ed moments” many times. Also, don’t ever just wait until your child asks questions. Some children never ask.

Finally, here are some wonderful books you can read with your pre-school-aged child that were also some of my son’s favorites. (Note: most are from the 1990s so may be difficult to find in print. I will update with newer books soon):

  • “Mommy Laid An Egg” by Babette Cole (Chronicle Books, 1996)
  • “What’s The Big Secret?” by Laurene Krasny Brown (Little, Brown & Company, 1997)
  • “Belly Buttons Are Navels” by Mark Schoen (Prometheus Books, 1992)
  • “It’s So Amazing” by Robie Harris (Candlewick Press, 1999; 2014) — this is recommended for ages 7 and up, but there are many sections you may want to read with your 3-year-old. It’s a bit like a comic book with amazing body inclusive illustrations.

The sooner you start the easier and more comfortable it will get. Good luck.

Terminology for Body Parts

Terminology for Body Parts

originally published on October 25, 1999; updated April 20, 2021

Dear Sex Ed Mom,
I am the mom of a two-year-old darling boy. I was curious as to whether it is better to start teaching him now the proper term for his penis — or is it OK to use the more “cutesie” terms we often use with our children?
— to be “cutesie” or not

Dear to be “cutesie” or not,
This is the most common question I hear from new parents. It still amazes me how something as simple as using accurate terminology for body parts can be so challenging for some of us. But, alas, we do live in a culture where most of us didn’t hear accurate terminology from our own parents.

The answer to your question is YES! You should be teaching your son (this goes equally for daughters) all the names for all of his body parts, including his penis. And you should call it a penis. This is important for several reasons.

First of all, one of the most important qualities of a sexually healthy child is having high self-esteem. This means he will love and value who he is as a person. Self-esteem includes having a healthy body image. So, if you start to call his genitals by “cutesie” names only, he may eventually get the message that there is something wrong with his genitals — especially when he learns the accurate terminology from others.

Secondly, it is about health and safety. Knowing the names of all their parts provides them with a universal language so that if they ever have a health problem or are sexually abused they have the ability and comfort to use terminology that everyone clearly understands.

Finally, using such nicknames may send the message that you are unwilling to discuss certain subjects and hence are not an “askable” parent. As your child gets older he may think that you are not comfortable discussing sexuality issues and he may not ask you when he has questions.

So, use accurate terminology with your sons and daughters from the beginning. Teach them both the male and female genitalia. By the age of three, my son knew that most boys have a penis and testicles and girls have a vulva, clitoris and vagina. These different parts are what determines a person’s sex at birth. A few years later he understood that these are simply special parts that can provide pleasure and for most are used in the process of making babies.

An excellent book that tackles the body part issue for toddlers is “Bellybuttons Are Navels” (Prometheus Books,1992) by my colleague Mark Schoen, Ph.D. This is the first step on the fun, challenging and exciting journey toward raising a sexually healthy child. Good luck!

Sex Ed Mom’s Top Ten Teaching Tips

Sex Ed Mom’s Top Ten Teaching Tips

Original tips written in 1999 (for parents talking with kids)


Listen with your ears.
Talking about sex includes listening, too. Sometimes we talk more than we listen.

Clarify their questions.
Do you really know what your child is asking? Repeat the questions back to them until you do.

Learn their info sources.
Ask them where they heard about specific topics or questions. Remind them that there are many myths about sex and even their best friend could be wrong.

Be an askable parent.
Be available, honest and attentive. Praise them for coming to you to talk about sexuality and relationships. This will teach your kids that they can always come to you for information and guidance.

Create teachable moments.
Use current events, movies, music and television as conversation starters — and do so often! Dinnertime talks and long drives are also great occasions to “break the ice.”

Practice, practice, practice.
It isn’t always easy to talk about healthy sexuality with our kids, and some topics are harder than others. Try holding practice sessions with a friend — or even a mirror — first.

It’s okay to say “I don’t know.”
Then look for the correct information with your child or teen. Or ask Sex Ed Mom by submitting your questions or attending a live chat (coming soon).

Teach your values openly.
In addition to giving your children the facts about sexual health and healthy relationships, tell them what you believe and why.

Use resources.
There are many amazing books available today. Review Sex Ed Mom’s Picks for Parents and check out the sexuality education section of your bookstore or library.

Get support from other parents.
Find other parents who understand the importance of raising sexually healthy and responsible youth either in person or online. Discuss your values about relationships and sexual health.