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April 11, 2016

Conversation with kids: Dating & relationships in fifth grade

Parenting Relationships
Syreeta Martin and her daughter Arionna Handout Art/for PhillyVoice

Syreeta Martin and her daughter, Arionna.

I don’t know if you knew, but it goes down in fifth grade, from the DMs to school hallways.

While I have memories of my now 27-year-old self being 10-11 years old, I have learned that the 10-11-year-old kids of today are not the sort that I or any generation preceding mine were.

I can say this with a considerable amount of confidence and insight given that I am raising a 10-year-old daughter who is in fifth grade.

Now, don’t get me wrong, many in my generation developed faster than our parents were ready for. I remember my elders blaming the early development of the girls' bodies on “the steroids in the chicken.” I didn’t know whether it was true or not, but I knew I loved chicken in any way that it came … but especially fried.

It’s since been documented by institutions like Duke University Health System that “African-American and Hispanic girls tend to start puberty slightly earlier than Caucasian girls.” Additionally, studies like the 2012 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey support a strongly developing theory that the increase in the number of girls who start menstruation at 13 or younger (as opposed to 16-17 at the turn of the 20th century) may be tied to an exposure to environmental toxins found in everyday items like plastic food and beverage containers, vinyl flooring and cars.

The discussion about the puberty culprit is one for another day, not the one being had here, right now.

What’s here and right now is my daughter’s entrance into puberty at 10 years old and the countless girls in her age group who are already B-cup deep in the process.

What’s here and right now is the question of how much they know about dating, relationships and sex and how well-equipped they are by the adults in their life to navigate these realms.

We all know there’s no handbook on parenting or caregiving.

We all know kids sometimes do things that they have no business doing; as a former teen mom, I can strongly attest to this. In fact, it’s the memories of my generation during our preteen and teen years, my experience as a teen mother and my work with youth and young adults that motivated me to have open talks with my daughter early on. I’d heard some of the things that the kids were discussing in school, and there was no way I was going to allow her understanding of her body, its functions and her mind to be shaped by the exchange of knowledge between kids her age.

But she’s 10 now.

And she’s developing now.

And kids in her grade are dating, and yes, some are engaging in sex now. According to the 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 5.6 percent of students nationwide at the time had sexual intercourse for the first time before age 13. This instance was higher among boys (8.3 percent) than girls (3.1 percent) and specifically among African-American boys (24 percent versus 9.2 percent for Hispanics and 4.4 percent for Caucasians) and African-American girls (4.9 percent versus 3.8 percent for Hispanics and 2.1 percent for Caucasians).

My daughter is African-American. So if we’re going purely off statistics, that means she’s more likely to develop faster and to start having sex earlier. She’s already shared that kids her age are sexually active, and that while some have learned about sex “from other people,” others claim to “just know about it.”

With all of this in mind, my mommy intuition told me it was time to check in to see where my daughter was at on dating, relationships and sex. If you have yet to, I encourage you to take this as a sign to check in with the youth and young adults in your life. Put your own judgments, worries and feelings aside, and be sure to LISTEN to UNDERSTAND.

• • •

Syreeta: So are kids your age dating? And if so, why?

Arionna: [Some are because] they like each other … their personality, the way they act, and they’re both good in school. And then it’s like [there are] these other people who kind of just date each other because they just want to date and to not feel left out of groups.

Syreeta: Peer pressure is powerful. What’s your understanding of what it means to date someone?

Arionna: Dating means going somewhere or doing something with someone to get to know them better so you could maybe create a life with them and have fun and know who's right for you and who’s wrong. And knowing what age you need to start letting other people in your life.

Syreeta: Do you ever find yourself wanting to date?

Arionna: Yes and no. No, because I don’t completely understand the world of dating, but yeah because I want to experience it one day. I don’t think I’m missing out on anything: I got me, myself and I, and my family, but I do want to experience what it’s like to know about love. [I know] you can date early, but sometimes it’s not a good thing because you might not understand the whole thing.

Syreeta: That’s very true: There’s a lot that comes with dating and relationships that even adults have yet to grasp. What do you know about how relationships work?

Arionna: You have to find somebody who really cares about you and who would do anything for you and not somebody who would just be there because they like your body. Then when they get what they want, they’re like, 'OK I’m done with that.' You want to find somebody who's committed to a relationship and wants to stay and take care of you and maybe [have] children.

Syreeta: And what do you believe to be the responsibility of each person in the relationship?

Arionna: Their responsibility is to take care of each other, to always pitch in and help out and always do the best that they can to make [each other] feel better. Say nice things to them, like, 'You’re having a nice hair day,' or, 'You look nice today,' or ask them what’s wrong. If they don’t want to talk about it, you just say, 'OK, if you do want to, we can talk about it later.'

Syreeta: So since you’ve had thoughts of dating, is it important to you to have a boyfriend?

Arionna: I think, and I told my grandma this, she’s really awesome because she can make it on her own, like having all this stuff in her life without having a man to support her. I’m not saying having a boyfriend is bad or anything because they support you too, but knowing that I have somebody in my family that doesn’t need a man to help her out — knowing that she can do it by herself — means that I can do it by myself and that I don’t need anybody to tell me that 'I can do it' and stuff like that; I can tell myself that. I just think you don’t have to have a boyfriend or husband; it’d be nice, but you don’t have to.

Syreeta: Well aren’t you an independent one; wonder where you got that from, haha! I agree, it’s important to have a sense of independence, but to also never block the blessing of partnership and genuine love. So with the kids your age, what do you wish the boys would learn or understand about dating?

Arionna: The boys need to learn that not all girls are just willing to do what the boys want to do. Before a whole family and a whole life come, they need to make sure that they know that somebody is the right one, and they’re not just dating them because they’re pretty. Some people can be pretty … and really ugly on the inside.

They [also] have to a let a girl or woman go at their own pace, and when they’re ready for other stuff, then that’s when they’ll talk about it, and if you agree, then you agree, and if you don’t, then you don’t, and you go from there.

Syreeta: And the girls?

Arionna: The girls need to learn that they can’t just like boys because it’s the most popular boy in school and stuff like that. Sometimes the most popular boys in school aren’t feeling really good on the inside. So, they might be like bullies or you might not know that they might hurt you or be mean to you. You can’t just rush into dating because you never know what will happen to you. You just have to chill.

I’m not just saying this is for the boys who want to date girls or the girls who want to date boys: If you’re a girl and you want to date girls — [this advice] is the same for you, too.

Syreeta: Well, that’s very open-minded of you. Speaking of advice, any for adults?

Arionna: Teach your kids about it and maybe they’ll be more educated and know, or at least figure out, when it’s time to date instead of before when they just want to rush into it.

Syreeta: OK, so last question, because Mommy’s curious: What has Daddy taught you about dating and relationships?

Syreeta Martin/for PhillyVoice

Syreeta's two children with their father.

Arionna: You never let a man hit on you and get smart with you. A man always needs to pull out a chair for his lady. You never disrespect a man either. [And that] sometimes you have to hear what the other person is saying instead of just hearing what you want to hear.

He’s taught me that I should look for a gentleman and a person who's always got your back and is there for you — never leaves your side, not for one minute. I’m speaking [about that], like — I think it’s an idiom — but like, figuratively. Yeah, figuratively.


I’m learning that in fifth grade, too.