Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Against Dating in High School

I enjoyed reading Doctor Spock's Baby and Child Care when I was a child. My life was full of children, both at school and at home, and being a child myself, I was naturally interested in knowing all about how I should be raised.  I dipped into it again and again over the years.

Doctor Spock disapproved of dating at a young age. He thought teenagers should not date until they were in their later teens, lest they grow jaded and bored of the business. However, my mother didn't think it was fair not to let me date until I was in my later teens because she herself had gone to a formal dance with an upperclassman when she was fourteen. That was circa 1960.  

In 1960, the median age for first marriage for men and women was the early twenties. This means that half of Canadians and Americans were married by the age of 24. (The median age for girls in the USA was 20.) Many Americans and Canadians got married fresh out of high school, as soon as they had jobs. My mother married at 23. Therefore, dating in high school made sense.  

In 2011, the median age for first marriage for American men was 28.7 and for American women was 26.5. This means that half of American men do not marry until at least around 29 and half of American women do not marry until at least around 27. Very few Americans or Canadians marry fresh out of high school. And therefore high school dating (aka "re-lay-tionships") no longer makes sense.   

When I was in high school, I discovered that some girls were not allowed to date/hang around with boys at night at all. At the time, I thought this was because their parents were super-strict and stuck in Old World ways. However, I now think that this had something to do with the fact that there was no such thing as dating in rural and small town Italy when my friends parents' were growing up. There was courtship of girls with strong parents, and there was sexual exploitation of girls with weak parents. End of post-war Italian story.

Dating as my mother knew it in the 1960s, with its iron clad rules about how nice girls were to be treated, existed mostly in the middle-class English-speaking world. In other kinds of countries, people watched their daughters like hawks and only tentatively eased their grip over their lives when prospective good husbands began hanging around. They were, of course, terrified that their daughters might be used and thrown aside like tissues which, among other things, would hamper their chances of attracting a good husband.

My friends' Old World parents might have thought my parents were negligent; as a matter of fact, I think my parents thought Canadian boys were still like Canadian boys in 1960: dividing girls into "easy" and "precious" and assuming that Girls Like Me were in the "precious" category.  (So not true, by the way, in a city so multicultural that there were multiple racist terms for goras ghosts mangia-cakes white Canadians from English-speaking homes, often assumed to be sluts or potential sluts/bad wives just for not belonging to the right ethnic group.)

Unfortunately, being found attractive by boys or men--especially the "right kind" of boys or men--has always been a status symbol among girls and women and, for some reason, it still is. Personally, I understand why this would be once you have left high school and are either in work or at university. As   a woman can reasonably expect to marry when she is about 27, it makes sense that she might start to care about how men (as men) perceive her and how to attract them when she is 21 or so. 

However, it makes no sense whatsoever for girls of seven or seventeen to give a damn. If everyone in your village gets married at 21, okay, start worrying at seventeen. But if most people don't marry until they are at least 27, then what is the problem?  Dating is for deciding upon a marriage partner, and if you are probably not going to marry until you are at least 27, it is rather silly to wish for a boyfriend at seventeen, let alone turn yourself into a moral pretzel to get one. 

I have just erased a passage in which I describe contemporary teenage boys as toads and fiends from hell. That seemed too harsh and genuinely unfair to the boys who want and strive to be good men, so instead I will suggest that no girl under the age of 21 has any business seeing boys as anyone more than platonic friends or potential friends. Not only is it perfectly normal to be "twenty-one and never had a boyfriend," it is an enviable state. Grandmothers and mothers who yak on and on about all the boyfriends they had when they were sixteen did not live in the ghastly sexual climate of today. 

Elementary school and high school are not for romance. They are for learning, developing and becoming whole people in a stimulating but safe environment.  Life before nineteen could be a blissful stretch of play, athletics, mastery of such arts as music and painting, language acquisition and opportunities most forty-year olds would love to have. What a shame to waste such a wonderful period of life on worrying about what boys think or, worse, sacrificing one's dignity and sense of self-worth to attract them sexually. 


Maria said...

This is why all girls schools are a good idea!
Perhaps it would have made no difference in my case though...I was completely uninterested in boys until I was maybe 17 or so, and in fact harboured some contempt for those girls who made out with boys in elementary school or talked incessantly about their boyfriends through high school. Somehow it seemed to me to be kind of sissy (I was a tomboy) and undignified. In fact, I remember thinking, "What's the point? You're 10! You're not gonna marry him!"
Now though, I confess that I feel annoyed when I see young teenagers with their boyfriends - I know they almost certainly won't marry, and I definitely don't think their pubescent boyfriends attractive, but it upsets me that they are capable at 13 of doing something I still cannot do, namely capture a guy's attention long enough for him to want to be my boyfriend. Aaargh! This is where I again remind myself that I haven't met anyone I could honestly and prudently marry.

c'est la vie said...

I agree 100% with this stance, and I think that all-boys and all-girls schools are the ideal scenario. The pupils are less distracted and can focus on their studies; they develop personality and self-confidence based on other attributes than their ability to attract the attention of the opposite sex. I think that ideal teaching methods for boys differs radically from ideal methods for girls.

While girls are not taught to say "no" in our schools, boys are not trained in self control. No one expects them to behave like gentlemen. I feel the root problem with the boys lies with parents and teachers who don't think their charges are capable of basic politeness and kindness, and don't trouble to demand it. The rest is only a snowballing of self-centred behaviour.

Leah said...

While I agree that they shouldn’t be dating, I don’t think that we should be too harsh on 17 year olds wanting a boyfriend. :) Biologically, girls of that age are ready to start being interested in boys, and the late average age of marriage is much more unnatural. Socially it makes sense to have older marriages, since people tend to mature emotionally, financially, etc. at later ages, but biologically it can be ridiculously frustrating.

On the plus side, I do think it’s important to note that another part of the reason for a higher average age for marriage has to do with the fact that a lot of people live together before marriage, making marriage less of a priority for them. I would suspect that the average age of marriage among good Catholic/Christians who don’t cohabitate before marriage is a good bit younger. I don’t think it is at all unreasonable for good Catholic girls who know good Catholic boys to be dating in college. My husband and I dated in college, I know many, many good couples who also dated in college and were married shortly after graduation.

High School Teacher said...

I dunno. Over the years I have seen girls whose parents didn't let them date in high school go off to college and become promiscuous. I've often thought that it would be better for parents to let their daughters date with some clearly defined boundaries, and handle the problems that arise while their daughters live at home and the parents can address it.

Maybe my own experience prejudices me, too: I didn't date in high school, and I felt thrown to the wolves in college. I REALLY wish those situations had come up while I was living under my parents' roof, and my mom a) could have picked up with her super-sonic radar that I was worried/confused/upset, and b) helped me figure out the boundaries as they related to the dating scenarios I found myself in.

Obviously all of this presupposes parents being willing to be the bad guy and protect their daughter from those boys who only want one thing. That includes parents not letting their daughters dress in certain ways, not letting their daughters date certain boys, risking their daughter being an "outcast" or whatever because she can't go to that party, etc.

Andrea said...

I went to an all-girls school for my entire education prior to university. I don't think it harmed me too much, but neither do I think it engendered healthy male-female relationships. Boys became a prize, part of a popularity contest. Lots of girls (not me) had boyfriends, but the general reason for having one was for the cool factor.

All-girls schools are no better or different than co-ed schools where parents or aunties don't teach what the point of "having a boyfriend" is. The all-girls school I went to for so long was a breeding ground for terribly superficial attitudes towards boys, relationships in general. Unfortunately I picked up on some of those attitudes and have spent the last decade undoing the damage.

Just my two cents. On the plus side, it did allow me to really focus on school and sports and what have you.

Jam said...

One reason for the higher average age at first marriage is that women simply have better options than (1) live at home and help mom plan the next parish picnic (2) get married. Things like education, and yes, working. I would argue that that is a much bigger factor than cohabitation. I think the higher age is a red herring -- I refuse to believe that the fact that women now are more likely to get married at 27 instead of 18 is, in itself, something to worry about. It's the result of such big historical currents; I just don't think that our goal as Catholics should be to teach kids that 22 is a great age to get married, above teaching them about vocation and discernment and virtue. Which is what I would argue focusing on the age issue, as an issue to be addressed rather than a fact to be aware of and work within, does. End tangential rant.

In re high school dating, it seems so individual. I didn't "get" dating as a teen, except as a status symbol. Then again there was a lot about social interaction of all kinds I didn't "get" until much later (sigh). Whereas I can totally understand that for some teenagers romantic pairings just sort of "happen" and can be healthy learning experiences. I agree that kids desperately need to be told (over and over, by lots of people) that there are other, better things to focus on, and "missing out" on "young love" is not at all the end of the world. ("sorry" for all the quote marks)

I think a lot of the problems surrounding all the sexual harassment and abuse that teens deal out to one another has to do with the fact that adults don't actually believe that teenagers can or should be chaste. They're exploring... they have every right... they ought to be affirmed... it's inevitable... it's a normal part of growing up... it would be damaging to repress it... So much of the mainstream culture thinks the only answer is to redirect teenage sexuality into "consensual" activity, without any recognition of how problematic that concept is for young people (much less adults), and without even considering that maybe the kids can and should be taught NOT to do anything.

Anonymous said...

Dating five years earlier than when you're expecting to get married isn't conducive to chastity. It just widens the window of lust. However, I don't think that you should adjust the dating age depending on the popular marriage age. These ages are based on a populace that aren't chaste. You don't need to get married at 21 when you can have sex beforehand.

Urszula said...

I personally don't think anybody should be allowed to date until they are at least old enough to have a driver's license and own a car. When you think about it, it just seems ridiculous for parents to be driving their 15- or 16-year olds (or younger :/) to a mall or movie theater so that they can 'hang out' or 'date'.

Part of the problem seems to be the whole concept of 'dating'. If we are bemoaning the lack of a dating culture at colleges, which has been replaced by meaningless hook-ups, I really don't think what teenagers are doing now is dating. Yes, being in a 'relationship', yes, getting sexually initiated, but I don't see it as any sort of getting to know each other with anything concrete in mind. I guess what I'm saying is I fear the problem is much deeper, in that if the kids were actually 'dating' according to a 1960s script we wouldn't be that badly off.

Also, I am not a huge fan of all-girls schools. I attended one in high school and while I did make strong friendships which have lasted over a decade since graduation, I don’t think they are the solution to the male-female problem among teenagers. I actually think they make it more aggravated, for the reasons mentioned in the comments above, but also since they make any sort of interaction with the opposite sex unnatural. I remember the awkward dances when we would invite the all-boys school over, and the cliques that formed around the popular girls who even then knew how to attract male attention. Half of my classmates threw themselves with gusto into the ‘real world’ after graduation and desperately sought male attention – the other half remain to this day incapable of any sort of normal interaction with men. Maybe the ratio would have been the same at a co-ed school, but maybe with a lesser degree of intensity (ie trying to make up for lost years or terrified of men).

Seraphic said...

I can't see how four or five years of school without boys would warp a woman forever. What it does is turn out girls who are used to competing intellectually and running everything without making any concessions to boys, and perhaps we strike people as unusual when we get to college/university.

Also we don't flinch under sexual harrassment although I remember some nasty masculine types among the girls bullying some of my friends. (Not me after the first month of first year, however, as I was too noisy and eccentric.)

Meanwhile, I do know some of the girls managed to get themselves sexually exploited all the same, but that wasn't on the school's watch, if you get my drift.

Getting the attention of boys was deemed admirable, but the great thing was that rarely could anyone tell. One girl I knew made up elaborate lies about boyfriends; not until after graduation did I discover that they had never existed. I don't know why she did that, when so many of her friends couldn't date at all or generally struck out on the first date (ahem).

What a howl. At any rate, I am convinced that although it doesn't solve the immediate problem of a teenage girl wanting a teenage boy to love her when such love is almost always volatile or transitory if it is, in fact, sincere, I think removing teenage girls from the orbit of teenage boys from ages 13-18 (at very least) is a smart thing to do. In the final year of high school, the girls could have a seminar on "Colleagues and Competition: Dealing with Men after High School." Oooh! I should write the textbook.

MaryJane said...

Fascinating. I was glad to see both sides of view on girls-only high schools. I have always tended to think they brought out all the worst in girls - in the way the girls treat each other - but obviously such schools work for some people. It may have a lot to do with the kind of environment that is fostered by the adults in charge, too.

I also agree that teenage girls need to be told over and over again by numerous people that there is more to life than boys their own age: but I think there are certain girls who will just never get it. (Others, like some commenters, are exactly the opposite and don't even understand the interest.) For the girls who are going to be interested in boys no matter what, it seems like the solution is not to hand them a condom but to put them in an environment where the peer pressure (not only the adult pressure) is to generally be good, focus on studies, etc. Maybe this is an all-girls school, or maybe it isn't, but I think good peer pressure does more than a lot of adult advice combined. If ALL the girls are saying no to boys, or stopping things at "just kissing" or whatever, then it is easier for the people-pleasing girl to go along with her friends then the boys.

Louise said...

I have to say, I think all girls schools can be good (I work in a Catholic one) but they definitely make the competition for boys more intense, and the interactions more perfunctory and awkward. They don't have any male friends, only short-term boyfriends. On another note, I think it's worth acknowledging that it isn't normal to be 21 and not have a boyfriend - not because people who are 21 and don't should be upset about it, but because if we deny that in secular society, it most certainly isn't normal, I think people in those situations will find it more difficult to stand strong. In a way, it's like being Catholic - it is highly unusual (at least here), and we know it perfectly well. It makes some leave the Church because they don't like feeling different, but for those who stay, it toughens us up. Similarly, women who get to 21 and don't have a boyfriend have a tough time, so I think they need to be able to admit to themselves that they are different to what secular society expects and be ok with that. But that's just my two cents.

Seraphic said...

Which secular society and when? Because not only does American secular society not get to define what "normal" is, neither does American society (or, to be more precise, since a Vietnamese neighbourhood in Minnestoa is light years away from an African-American community in the Dorchester neighbourhood of Boston, American societies.)

The whole notion of women (particularly women of the middle and upper classes) having temporary sexual or sexually-charged relationships before marriage or the age of 21 is relatively new and by no means universal, even today. If it turns out that the majority of women in India and China have such relationships before marriage or the age of 21, then I will agree that they are normative for humanity in 2013.

Even if that were true, which I doubt, it would not be true for human history.

Girls THINK "everyone has a boyfriend but me" but it really is not true. And not only that, Catholic girls in particular have some kind of Archie-and-Veronica notion that having a boyfriend is uncomplicated and wonderful and couldn't possibly involve sexual coercion--not for THEM.

Of course, some girls are lucky, and never ever feel a moment's discomfort with the guys they call their boyfriends although I think this much more likely of girls who are completely open to the idea of premarital sexual activity and have made up their mind to do whatever sexual stuff they feel like doing, as long as they actually feel like doing it.

I would love to know in which communities in the West it is still "normal" to have had a boyfriend before 21 without ever having gone past first base: surely much more the norm for 1950 than for 2013. My guess is that these are going to be only very conservative religious communities.

Amelia Jones said...

Well said sister! Kids are so desperate to jump into what they think would make them complete and trendy. It is so sad to see that their innocence is lost at a very early stage, as they get lost in the ways of the world. They think that being deprived of a boyfriend would make them seem old fashioned. And yeah partially the problem is with the co-ed schools. School is where a child's foundation is laid. A child's mind is a white paper and if the school is good enough to imprint good things on it, half of the problem would be solved. <a href="”>Sunnybrook School</a> in Toronto is one such good school that can train kids for better.