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PARENTING : Winning the Dating Game : * Staying involved by talking with kids about sex and relationships is crucial, as well as setting rules for behavior.

March 04, 1994|MICHAEL SZYMANSKI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Michael Szymanski writes regularly for The Times

Two years ago, Wes Walker, now 12, told his mom he wanted to start dating girls.

Donna Walker of Studio City recalls, "My first thought was that this shouldn't be happening for another five years."

Today, her son is a regular ladies' man: He had three girlfriends last semester alone. He enjoys taking them skating or to the bowling lanes--never mind that his mother has to drive.

As for his mother, the only time the arrangement worried her was when Wes dated an older woman. "She was 13 and he was 10 and I was thinking, 'What do you want with my baby?' " But so far, Donna says, "Everything has worked out fine."

Not all grown-ups react so calmly to the fact that children in the San Fernando Valley are beginning to date at younger and younger ages.

"As parents we can monitor it and agonize over it," says Rick Goldstein, a marriage, family and child therapist who has been counseling youngsters and families for seven years at the Canyon Center in Toluca Lake.

"But we have to realize that when boys and girls are involved in dating, there is some kind of sexual or erotic involvement. It could be as innocent as holding hands, but it could involve kissing or petting or intercourse and there isn't that much we as parents can do to stop it."

What parents can do, Goldstein and others agree, is stay involved with kids as they start to get involved with the opposite sex. "Communication is the most important part of the dating situation," Goldstein believes. If your child and a date are watching a video, he advises, "watch it with them and talk to them about it. Listen to the words they use and the music they like."

With such methods, he maintains, parents can draw youngsters out about what matters most to them. "Encourage them to tell you what they're doing," he advises. "Discuss it and educate your children without using judgments."

Remaining non-judgmental may be particularly difficult for those who suspect that their children may already be sexually active. On the other hand, parents' reactions might surprise them. Rhonda Radcliffe of Woodland Hills couldn't believe she was buying condoms for her 14-year-old son, Josh, but she knew he was dating and wanted him to be safe.

"He was embarrassed about it and he and his friends made water balloons out of them," says Radcliffe. "But I knew some of those girls in the eighth grade were more aggressive than the guys."

Now, Josh, 16, lives with his father in Maryland, but he is open about talking to his mother about girls he dates.

Radcliffe's advice for grown-ups: "Always know that you're the parent, but you can also be their best friend."

Being friends with your children doesn't mean you can't set rules for their behavior. One of Donna Walker's rules is that Wes can't have a girl in the house unless Mom's home. While Wes doesn't like it ("I sort of feel she doesn't trust me"), he abides by it.


Goldstein suggests that parents begin strictly and loosen dating rules as children grow. He advises adults to chaperon dates until youngsters are 13 or 14. Then, he recommends a transition, such as leaving them in a movie theater and ducking into a movie nearby.

The next step would be to drop them off in a safe public place. Such gradual exposure to togetherness, Goldstein feels, helps youths be more responsible.

When his own son reached driving age, Goldstein did discuss safe sex with him. Once, he found his son finishing a romantic interlude with a girl. When it was over, they watched cartoons on television.

"You have to realize," he says, "that your children may want to act grown up but the bottom line is that they need a parent to be there for them."

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