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A recent letter from a mother asked for “help setting dating guidelines for my 12-year-old daughter who is beginning to show an interest in boys. I would like specific guidelines like at what age would you recommend she be allowed to group date, double date, and finally go out alone with a boy, and how much supervision would you suggest.”

To me a 12-year-old girl dating is an oxymoron, an incongruous phrase like “deafening silence,” but I understand that parents want answers about fast-approaching teen years.

I talked to some parents of teens and preteens after I read today’s letter. My unscientific poll included both mothers and fathers from three cities. There was pretty widespread agreement that arbitrary rules are not as important as knowing what’s going on with your teenagers.

Everybody agreed it was important to define the word “date” for a teenager. My definition: A BOY AND GIRL ALONE TOGETHER WITHOUT ADULT SUPERVISION — and this includes being alone together in a home as well as going out together.

Most of the parents I talked with use the term “group dating” when a bunch of boys and girls go on a hike or out for pizza. I don’t think the term double date is used much today, but whether there are two or four teens going out in a car there is no adult present so it counts as a date.

At the risk of having most teenagers hate me, I think there should be absolutely no dating in middle school although I have no objection to groups of boys and girls going together to school functions, sports, hikes, etc. Indeed these boy/girl group functions are useful because it doesn’t pressure young teens who are not ready to date. One mother said her 14-year-old daughter preferred groups and did not feel ready to date because she worried she would run out of things to say to the boy.

As for a real date, my general rule would be 16, the age that teens are emancipated from adult supervision when in a car because they can now legally drive. (I advocate parental supervision of all newly-licensed teens for several months when it comes to daytime driving and close to a year for night driving but sooner or later all teens will take off in the car alone.)

Younger than 16?

Maybe, if the girl demonstrates maturity and responsibility. How can a parent tell if their teen has a high Responsibility Quotient? A responsible teen stays in school and gets good grades, plans for a future by both dreaming about and preparing for a productive adulthood and building a strong value system, makes wise choices (at least most of the time), does not harm self or others (no drugs, violence, gangs, or irresponsible sex), treats others kindly, and is beginning to think for himself or herself.

My daughter reminded me that I originally said no dating until age 16 but I changed my mind and let her go out at 15 with a young man who was almost 17. But before I changed my mind I saw the young man at our home many times. He visited us so often one summer that he managed to housebreak and obedience-train our new puppy! This brings me to the next important point:

Never let your daughter go out with someone you don’t know and approve of.

The third important guideline, in addition to the age/responsibility quotient of your daughter and knowing the boy, is to set down your house rules. Insist on knowing where your daughter is going and make it clear that she is to go nowhere else without your permission. Tell her what time she must be home. Responsible teens will accept these rules. Grumbling doesn’t count, it’s the teen’s behavior that determines when you can relax or modify the house rules.

Dating, when it starts, should be only PART of a teen girl’s life — not the most important thing. It worries me that our young girls get a very mixed message from our culture. They hear, “You can be anything you want to be!” but they also hear, “The most important thing is to be attractive and popular!”

Mary Pipher wrote a book that every mother of a teen or preteen daughter should read: Reviving Ophelia-Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. Dr. Pipher says most families are functioning just fine but the culture is dysfunctional — especially for young girls.

She writes, “In order to keep their true selves and grow into healthy adults, girls…need identities based on talents or interests rather than appearance, popularity, or sexuality.”

So many teen girls today are preoccupied with popularity and appearance, designer jeans and dating, cosmetics and chunky shoes that I worry about the displacement effect. Bright girls should be thinking about their future. What do I want to be? How can I get there? What can I do to make the world a better place?

I understand the biology here — puberty brings an interest in sex — and the psychology — being attractive makes a teen feel good. But I shudder at the effects our pervasive sexualized culture has on teen girls. I heard Mary Pipher point out that parents should “protect their daughters from what is toxic and ugly in our culture and expose them to what is healthy and beautiful.” Parents have to work hard at this task because clothes and cigarette and cosmetics industries are spending billions to get to our kids.