We Asked Therapists and Parents: How Early Is Too Early for a Kid to Have a Boyfriend or Girlfriend?

When Can Kids Start Dating. A boy and a girl on the swing set.
McKenzie Cordell for PureWow/Getty Images

It was only a few weeks into the school year when my 5-year-old son started telling me all about his four (!) kindergarten girlfriends. I thought it was pretty darn cute and, to be honest, I was just relieved that my shy and sometimes truculent little kid was making friends with such ease. It did, however, make me wonder what my 7-year-old daughter was up to in the second grade, since she, too, has sheepishly conceded to having a crush or two and, most importantly, is starting to give off some serious tween vibes.

So how soon is too soon for kids to start doing the boyfriend/girlfriend thing? And when can they graduate to actual dating? I went to a Clinical Psychologist (PhD) and two Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFT) for some expert advice, plus pooled parents across the country, and the answer is… it depends. Experts and caregivers pretty much agree that there is no single age where dating becomes acceptable, and that it’s more about your child’s maturity level and understanding. Read on for more nuance on the subject.

Meet the experts:

PureWow: How early is too early for a child to have a boyfriend or girlfriend?

KH: When it comes to whether a child is ready to have a boyfriend or girlfriend, parents should consider their child's maturity rather than a particular age. Typically, it's best for children under 13 not to engage in romantic relationships as they are still developing emotionally and cognitively. Healthy friendships are encouraged for teenagers between 13 and 15, but romantic relationships could be too much for them to handle. Parents should discuss dating guidelines with their teens and monitor their behavior closely while providing support and guidance as needed.

JT: It’s important to remember that our definitions of the terms “girlfriend” or “boyfriend” may mean something different to us as adults from what they mean to your child. The way that young children, or older children, teens, and young adults define these terms changes over time as they evolve developmentally. So, this is where open communication with your child becomes very important.

JS: First, I want to point out that this topic is very expressly separate from sexual behaviors, which should be discouraged until the child is developmentally able to comprehend the consequences and implications of that type of relationship and how to stay safe and maintain self-respect. That said, the answer as to when a kid should be allowed to date is that it depends.  Children are not one size fits all and will all demonstrate varying levels of maturity and readiness for dating at differing ages.

PureWow: What if, for example, your 7-year-old comes home from school saying she got a new boyfriend and they kissed on the lips?

KH: It is important to note that in the eyes of the child, there was probably nothing malicious or sexual about the kiss. The terms "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" mean something much more innocent and less serious to the child than to teens or adults. However, it is important to recognize that a more serious conversation about respect, boundaries and consent should be had. Take this opportunity to teach your child about their bodily autonomy and how they can say no to any physical advances. Further, you must also teach them to respect other people's physical boundaries as well.

JT: It’s really about what your 7-year-old feels “a boyfriend” means. See if you can find out more from her about this in a genuinely curious, interested manner.  What does she think having a boyfriend means and how does that work? (Very often at this stage, having a “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” could be something that lasts for a few hours or days at most). As for kissing on the lips, you should certainly ask about that. (Why did they do that? Whose idea was it? Are they following behaviors that they have seen adults do? Is this something they were dared to do by peers?) It’s good to find out information first before providing a boundary for your child. (This could be something along the lines of “you will have plenty of time to kiss someone on the lips later, right now you don’t need to do that.”)

JS:  A 7-year-old who is "dating" a classmate might believe it is dating just to declare that they are dating. At seven, a child who kisses another child on the lips is likely copying behavior modeled by television, parents, older siblings or other adults rather than acting on an internal drive for intimacy. This child can be told about social rules and "time and place" rules society has about dating and affection. Children can be allowed to pretend to "date" without developmental harm, and any correction for kids who either intentionally or unintentionally go "too far" should be without shame and humiliation, and couched in terms of readiness, not appropriateness.

PureWow: What things should parents consider when determining whether or not their kid is old enough to date?

KH: Parents should consider their child's maturity and readiness. Ask yourself: Does your child understand what it means to be in a relationship? Do they know how to respect other people's boundaries? Can they handle the emotional pressure of being in a relationship with another person? Can they maintain healthy boundaries in order to protect themselves from potential harm or exploitation? Ultimately, each situation must be evaluated on an individual basis, as every family and every child is different.

JT: It’s good to understand what is meant by “dating.” Is this a large-group or small-group or one-on-one activity?  Who else will be present?  What are the expectations you have, as well as those held by your child, their peer and their peer’s parents?  It’s always helpful for everyone to be on the same page and comfortable with whatever the boundaries/limits are.

JS: What dating means to the child is very important contextual information for determining the correct age for dating. Cultural considerations are also relevant for parents and teens. In some families, a child may only be allowed to date based on strict codes regarding the purpose of dating and this, too, is not detrimental in and of itself.

Bottom Line

When it comes to kids and dating, the therapists advise parents to ask neutral questions, consider the context (i.e., the maturity and intentions of your own kid) and then start a relevant and age-appropriate conversation about boundaries. In other words, understanding and communication is key.

…And Here’s What Parents Have to Say

Still feeling a little unsure with regards to boundary setting and dating between kids? We don’t blame you. When in doubt, phone a friend. Actually, we did that for you by taking the question to a handful of parents across the country. Here’s where they stand on the subject:

“I’d say 16. Kids don’t have the maturity before that age to make solid judgments about mates and dating and sex…and they usually suffer from under-developed self-esteem.” — Debbie, California mom-of-two.

“I mean, my kids are both under the age of 5 right now so it’s hard to say…but I guess I didn’t have a boyfriend until age 12, so somewhere around there seems about right. Then again, it does feel like kids are growing up much faster now, so who knows.” — Nicole, New Jersey mom-of-two.

“Hmm…I think no earlier than 16 years old, but ideally 18, just due to emotional maturity and priorities to school, activities, friends, etc. Dating can get intense and also be a distraction if not ready!” — SZ, New York mom-of-one.

“I think it’s totally fine for kids as young as 8 to say they have a girlfriend or boyfriend, because I’d assume the title is more just a statement of friendship without any understanding or intention of romance. As for real, romantic dating…maybe 14 or 15 sounds fine, provided they take it really slow, and I know what’s up. But boy, I don’t know. My kids are still young (5 and 7) so I’m not there yet!” — Vivian, Rhode Island mom-of-two.

“I don’t believe there’s an age at which it starts being appropriate. What we do in my house is ask our kids what dating means to them, and then we decide if they are ready for that thing. So for example, last year my 12-year-old asked if she could date a boy. I asked her what that meant and she said, ‘going out to lunch,’ so we allowed her to do that. Additionally, there’s so much nuance these days with gender fluidity that I don’t think it makes sense to have hard and fast rules there. My daughter asked to have a sleepover with a boy who is her friend, and we simply evaluated based on these two kids and decided she could.” — Denise, Maryland mom-of-two

Allowances for Kids: How Much, Why Do It and When to Start

purewow author

Freelance PureWow Editor

Emma Singer is a freelance contributing editor and writer at PureWow who has over 7 years of professional proofreading, copyediting and writing experience. At PureWow, she covers...