Fourteen-year-old Claire August has fond memories of Valentine's Day. Last year, a seventh-grade classmate she was dating gave her a little box of candy hearts.
It was one of the few times during their month-long relationship that they talked face-to-face. Like most tweens, Claire, who lives in Davis, Calif., and her crush communicated almost entirely via text message and Facebook. When her mother Anne Smith asked Claire if they had held hands, she replied, "Oh, Mom, no. It's junior high!" They even broke up via text message.
Nearly half of 11- to 14-year-olds say they have been in a dating relationship, according to a 2008 survey of 1,043 tweens by Tru, a Chicago youth market-research firm, for Liz Claiborne. A larger share—60 percent—think parents should let middle-schoolers date, according to a recent online poll of 787 users by Yoursphere, a social-networking website for tweens and teens.
But "dating" in middle school doesn't mean what many adults think. Tween couples talk mostly via text and chat. Their relationships are fleeting but all-consuming. They date in packs—but expect their boyfriends and girlfriends to be monogamous. And they keep their parents largely in the dark.
Anthony Conselatore didn't tell his parents the first time he asked a girl out, at age 12. "I was nervous, and we really didn't talk much while we were dating," said the Potomac Falls, Va., teen. "We'd see each other in the hallway for five minutes, then go to classes and not talk to each other again until the next week." Within a couple of months, he adds, "she fell in love with a different guy, and she broke up with me," he said. "It happens."
Now 14, Anthony is "more than friends" with a girl at school. When he sees her in the hall, "we give each other a hug and go on with our lives," he says. But they fire more than 300 text messages back and forth each day. If they do go out, they go in a pack of friends because it helps avoid "that awkward moment, when we're staring at each other for five minutes, not saying anything," Anthony said.
Still, tweens endure their most awkward social moments in a fishbowl. When a classmate approached 13-year-old Nicholas Kelly in the school cafeteria to ask him out, she brought a friend for "moral support," Nicholas said. "My friends thought it was hilarious," said Nicholas, now 16. "She was more popular than me, and my friends were, like, 'Dang, she just asked you out?' " He and the girl agreed to go to a movie with a group of friends, said Nicholas, of Batavia, Ill.
"We dated for seven days," mostly by text message, Nicholas said. "In middle school, a long relationship is a month. Anything over that and your friends say, 'Omigod, you guys have been together that long?' " He added, "Then, she broke up with me. I lay on my bed staring at the wall for three hours, and then it was, like, 'OK, I've got a life,' " and he went out with his friends and forgot about it.
Now a sophomore, Nicholas said he has more social skills and sees the girl he is dating more often. "We understand each other," he says.
Talk about dating becomes pervasive when kids turn 9 or 10, amid earlier onset of puberty and social pressure to grow up fast, experts say. "Sometimes parents think it's really cute" when young kids date, but children lack the skills to handle it, including setting personal boundaries and knowing they have the right to privacy, said Rosalind Wiseman, author of "Queen Bees & Wannabes," the book that inspired the film "Mean Girls."
Several tweens said they agreed to date someone not because they wanted to, but because they didn't know how to say no.
Karen Kruse was startled when her 11-year-old daughter, Olivia, came home from sixth grade last fall saying a classmate told her that his friend "liked her and was going to ask her out on a date," said Kruse, of Phoenix. Olivia said no, with encouragement from her brother, Joshua, 13, and her mom. At that stage, Joshua says, dating is mostly about social status: "Kids want all their friends to know they're going out with so-and-so."
Much of tweens' dating behavior reflects what they think they "should" do, based on "what they see on TV, in movies or among older kids," said Vanessa Van Petten, a Portland, Ore., author and founder of RadicalParenting.com, a parenting-advice website written by kids.
More than 1 in 4 tweens say oral sex and intercourse are part of tween relationships, the Liz Claiborne survey found. That doesn't mean 1 in 4 tweens are engaging in those behaviors, however. Respondents were answering a question about dating behavior in general at that age, rather than their own conduct.
Anne Smith, Claire's mom, believes banning dating outright is a mistake; "the kids just do it anyway. And then you have no communication with them," she said. Instead, she permits Claire to ride her bike occasionally to the mall or a movie with friends.
A kid's first crush poses an opportunity to teach values, Wiseman said. A parent might say, "Tell me what you like about this person," and explore whether the child knows what distinguishes healthy relationships from harmful ones.