Middle school is a time when many kids are beginning to show an interest in the opposite sex. Coed dances or gatherings at school may seem "safe" enough, but young teens may be invited to a private party at a friend's house or even (yikes!) a coed sleepover. There can be a very fine line between being overprotective and guarding your child's safety.
Our culture places an overriding importance on sexuality and on "appealing to the opposite sex." Children are trying to figure out these messages and are also responding to their natural interest and curiosity. One goal for young teens is to offer them plenty of opportunities to get to know kids of the other gender as whole people. Dances and social events sometimes just perpetuate giggly, flirty surface interactions that don't allow kids to really get to know each other. Rather than prohibiting kids from engaging in coed activities, it is important that we support them in participating in safe, fun activities. Equally important is maintaining open communication with them so that they can check in with us when things get difficult. Here are some ideas:
- Support school activities. As you indicated in your question, participating in school activities seems like a good way for kids to have a chance to spend time together. As well as going to dances, you can help your child look into coed sports teams, year book committees, band, and school clubs in which both boys and girls participate.
- Choose families where you know the parents. There are probably "parties" at friends' homes where you know the family. If you can talk to the parents about the kinds of activities and supervision planned, you may find out that things are well planned and seem safe to you.
- Host gatherings at your house. One way to ensure that your child's activities will be appropriate is to help her plan and put them on. You could host a "make your own pizza" and Karaoke party. You could set up casino games, send kids coupons for poker chips in their invitations that they can redeem at the door. The chips could be used to "buy" prizes at the end of the evening. You could enlist the help of trustworthy college students to supervise the activities close up if your child finds it too embarrassing to have you be close by the whole time. Or you could set up a "make your own video" party. Invite kids to come in costume with a dance routine, skit or other production that they would like to have video taped, perhaps providing a bunch of silly costumes for kids to use.
- Encourage other kinds of socializing. Work to keep other options for boys and girls to spend time together. Invite a few friends on a family hike, bike ride or fishing trip. Invite some friends over for a cookie-decorating event, or a treasure hunt.
- Keep communication open. Check in regularly with your kids to find out how things are going. Ask their opinions about what they think are fun and safe ways to socialize with their friends. Ask them what they enjoy about the events they go to and if anything is difficult or uncomfortable for them there. You can offer information about how situations that seem safe might become unsafe and discuss with your child what she could do if something like this happens. It is important to avoid "preaching to" or scarring kids. Rather, let them know that their opinion matters to you and try to negotiate social policies that make sense to both of you.