Here are some basic guidelines for boy-girl socializing.
Like a garden that looks manageable one day -- then overgrown with weeds the next -- adolescent boy-girl socializing can go from innocent to ardent, mild to wild with little warning. According to Jeanne Elium, author of Raising a Family (Celestial Arts Publishing, 1997), parents should discuss dating with kids before the subject becomes sensitive, laying a foundation of communication. Stories about how parents met can initiate discussion. Confide what parts of dating were positive, scary, embarrassing, fun. "Ask kids what they see as the purpose of dating -- tell your view," Elium suggests.
Kids as young as 10 and 11 may talk of "boyfriends," "girlfriends," or "going together." Such chatter isn't usually cause for alarm, but parents should discourage one-to-one pairing.
"Parents need to be pretty conservative," says Mary Mitchell, author of "Dear Ms. Demeanor," a syndicated column that answers teens' etiquette questions. "There are pressures for kids to act older."
Avoid parties that pair kids as couples. Participation in youth groups and coed athletics lets boys and girls mingle in low-key ways. Such experiences reduce their awkwardness when they later date.
By age 14 or 15, kids may ask to date "solo" (one boy, one girl), though group activities can still meet many social needs. "Kids today aren't as likely to date as a single couple," says Elium, applauding the group trend.
This age also brings new anxieties. "The beginning of wisdom is admitting what you don't know," Mitchell says, laughing, "and kids won't admit what they don't know." But they're really grateful, says Mitchell, if you give them useful information, such as how to introduce themselves or how to accept and give compliments.
The move to solo dating calls for creativity and nimble negotiation to balance your concerns for safety with your teen's increasing appeals for independence.
One strategy is to curb unsupervised, solo dating while providing well-chaperoned group get-togethers. "Now is the time to invest in a Ping-Pong table," says Elium, urging parents to keep kids active.
"Teens like to gather with nothing constructive in mind," she says, "and this can lead to inappropriate behavior." Instead, she suggests guiding teens to industrious alternatives, such as building a gazebo, baking a cake, designing a Frisbee golf course, or tie-dying T-shirts. Planned activities provide focus, relieve self-consciousness, and allow teens to hone social skills.
Marcy Bice, 16, says that most teens in her Illinois high school move in and out of relationships lasting from a few weeks to several months. The casual, group trend has rendered the traditional solo dating rare, she explains, though kids still pair up for dances. Formal occasions, such as proms, call for plenty of protocol. Parents can help by anticipating -- and teaching -- skills needed to survive the "big date" with self-esteem intact.
"Use humor," suggests parent Saran Robinson. "I tell my son: 'Listen, your date is going to do some strange things.' Then I give him a play-by-play from a female perspective, forecasting various disasters. We laugh a lot, and it gives me a chance to go over the corsage, the restaurant, saying good night."
And practice makes perfect -- or at least less clumsy. Fathers can watch for opportunities to offer their daughters gestures of courtesy: helping with a coat or pulling out a chair at dinner. Don't let the junior prom be the first time your daughter experiences a door held for her.
Is it OK for girls to ask boys out? "Absolutely," says Marcy, and her older brother Curt agrees. Letitia Baldrige, author of More than Manners (Simon & Schuster, 1997), reminds girls, "Whoever does the asking must make the arrangements and pay for everything."
The Bice teens allow for a little more flexibility: "Some dates, like homecoming, are expensive," says Marcy. "There's the tickets, dinner, flowers. The money part gets worked out mutually, in advance."