Six months pregnant, I was surprised to notice a tumbleweed of teen boys momentarily stop, huddle and then carry on, whispering and looking back. I clocked the awkward body language, the quick straightening of the hair, a cough, a punch in the ribs – this was teen-boy-with-crush behaviour.
I wanted to make a "still got it" joke but, in fact, I had never had it, not as a teen, not until now, apparently, pregnant at 26. I considered shouting to them while pointing at my belly: “Boys, boys, can you not see that I am spoken for?” But before I had the chance, I overheard the name of one of my little sisters, in her teens at the time, and spied the definite mouthing of “her big sister.”
Scoping for big sisters, mummies, daddies, nannies, and grannies is a big part of the early dating scene. Most "hoods don’t need the local MLAs" CCTVs. The imperceptible movement of the curtain, a pair of spectacles glinting behind a newspaper at the bus stop, the neighbour’s laundrywoman, all create a crackling, formidable network of informants who work at the speed of gossip and are connected directly to your mother. This information superhighway has only one agenda: to get you in trouble. So you need to ID potential informants before they ID you.
My mother was never at the receiving end of any information about me. Teenage boys were not keen on teenage me. And while I was not oblivious to the fact that my friends got looks of love and I, the occasional retching sound or fat joke, it really made no difference to me. I had books, two best friends and anyway, I was saving all my love for Kirk Cameron, Grover from Sesame Street, or E.T. Whoever showed up first.
When my parents moved away to another country, I had to have a serious chat with my mum about the busybodies. Living alone and going to college at 17 with the family in another country, she had to choose between trusting me or the Imperceptibly Moving Curtains. She chose me, but it was easy.
In response to one of my previous columns, Rules For Dating My Daughter, one reader archly suggested on a feminist mothers’ forum that I was stifling my girl, making her suffer the privations of my own “arid dating history". Bereft of any possible objectivity in this regard, my only defense is, in my (very personal) experience, that I am not half as stifling as moms who dated a lot in their early teens. I’m willing to be educated further on this, but the early-adolescent exchanging of promise rings and sloppy kisses seems an innocent but superfluous life experience. A woman I know said, “I could have done anything with my time. But I tied myself to one little boy, then another, playacting at adulthood, getting my heart broken. I don’t want that for my girl.” Another wondered what early dating afforded either gender: “I wonder if the boys just didn’t feel pressured into it.”
The age when your kids start dating is up to every parent (and individual child), but in a blog post from 2013, Pulitzer-winning author and dad of three Nick Chiles cites a study that indicates (from an admittedly limited Western, urban sample) that early dating can be seen as detrimental to kids’ emotional development. Of course, the ages for early dating seem shockingly young (to me) but the general consensus is, later-daters, “suffered no harm from waiting.”
There’s another fallout of early dating. Pop culture commiserates with nervous boys worrying about rejection, It Girls too fly to notice them. But the really awkward girls don’t make for great lyrics. Or the sports girls, the nerds, the shy ones, the too-tall ones, the ones who suddenly need braces and glasses and a dermatologist. If you’re not waiting for the human equivalent of Grover Monster, you could begin to feel like you were either not good enough or doomed to a loveless life. Except 13, 14, 15 is TOO YOUNG TO WORRY ABOUT BEING FOREVER ALONE. (So is 16, 17, 22, 39, 52 .…)
The other day, two fellows wearing fire-hazard levels of hair product (obviously having neglected to read my rules on dating) did that now oh-so-familiar stop, huddle, rib punch. I suspect it was either my daughter or one of her lovely friends who was the reason behind this Informant IDing.
Yes, I have had an arid dating history. I am none the worse for it. And my daughter is not me. Still, I want to disempower the network that pits kids-being-kids against adults by allowing a safe space for kids to be kids – under my discreet supervision. I’ve told mine they can bring home friends of all genders, shapes, hues, even ones with crushes on them, because I spent my teen years not caring what the nosy neighbours think, and they shouldn’t either.
Recently, AFirstBoy came over for a social minute to meet my girl and her friends. Determined to be The Cool Mom, I tried to breach the awkward with jokes and my (delicious) banana chocolate bread. Floundering, I finally said he smelled nice. My daughter later informed me I had freaked him out.
Yes, I said, I believe teen boys across generations are consistent. Then I gave her a very meaningful look.
This article first appeared on The Swaddle.