By Linda Perlstein Sunday, February 13, ; Page W20 Ask a group of seventh-graders how to conduct relationships, and much of their advice could apply just as well to adults: A grown man is unlikely to say to a grown woman, "You're my backup if Jessica says no.
And when they finally do go out with someone, they actually, well, go out. The grown world is dying to know what it means for a middle schooler to have a girlfriend or boyfriend in today's News-at era of supposed oral sex parties and sluttier-than-thou dating shows.
Kids from Howard, Fairfax and Montgomery counties agreed to explain, and one of them, sixth-grader Kimiya Memarzaden, gives an answer that is charmingly coy. Chris Hartlove "Going out," Kimiya explains, "is being more than friends and less than actually going somewhere. Still, like anyone in middle school, she can thoroughly explain relationship etiquette, name all the couples in her grade seven at press time and capture in one brief sentence all that seems strange about middle school romance: Of course there's a point.
If we didn't ever have these fumbling attempts, how would we learn? Certainly a small minority of middle schoolers are having sex, and another small group pays no attention to the whole crush thing.
Not every kid is experiencing romance in the same way. But for the bulk of children from sixth through eighth grade, the customs are similar, and surprisingly enduring. There are the folded-up notes, the embarrassed exchanges, the hearts scrawled on sneakers, the loves-of-one's-life that according to kids and the best guesses of scholars last an average of two to four weeks one-sixth the duration of the typical high school liaison.
Relationships sometimes only involve two clumsy conversations: These maladroit transactions are the training wheels of love, explains Bradford Brown, a human development professor at the University of Wisconsin, and one of the few people on earth over the age of 13 who pays serious attention to the childhood crush. If you think of it that way, what could be more important? This is the No.
This saves face for the askees, too, many of whom say "yes" when directly asked by a boy simply because it's too uncomfortable to say no.
She doesn't count her first two, "because it was, like, in sixth grade. Social scientists have long dismissed teen romance as frivolous, irrelevant and too fickle and logistically difficult to track, Brown explains in The Development of Romantic Relationships in Adolescence.
The book is one of the few pieces of child development scholarship dwelling more on courtship than on sex. At this age, Brown says, "romance is a very public institution played out in front of a peanut gallery of peers. Smoothing the way for someone to be asked out "is a wonderfully protective device," he explains, "because if the emissary gets laughed out of the ballpark, the person can deny ever having sent the person.
It's a great way to protect one's self-esteem at a time when self-esteem is pretty fragile anyway. If you find the right friend who knows what to say, things are likely to go a lot more smoothly. According to Bryan, it's not always clear whom to send as an emissary to determine who likes whom.
But guys can keep secrets better than girls, and they can think a little bit faster when asked, 'Were you sent by someone? This is an important corollary to the first rule and, yes, it's still usually the boy who does the asking out -- in person, preferably. Otherwise, "it's just kind of like you're hiding behind something," says Josh Furnary, an eighth-grader at Thoreau Middle School in Vienna who has some experience in the matter one girlfriend in sixth grade, three in seventh and two in eighth.