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facts & arguments

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It's a sunny Saturday in June and we are hosting our first barbecue of the season. One p.m. and I am slicing red onions very much ahead of schedule. Doorbell rings.

I brush the onion tears from my face, wipe my hands on my pink flannel pyjamas and open the door.

Standing on my front stoop is a freshly blow-dried 12-year-old in high-waisted stonewashed shorts and a floral tank top. She is taller than her mom. Both are looking at me as if I should know who they are.

"Um, I'm like Mary-Margaret? Benji like invited me to the uh, barbecue?"

Oh good. You are four hours early.

"Nice to meet you, Mary-Margaret," I smile. "The barbecue is called for 5 o'clock."

Glittery lip gloss quivers. "Mom," she says, looking down at her mom, "I'm sure he said to be here by 1."

He may well have said that. He also probably said his math homework was handed in. He's a 12-year-old boy. They are notoriously vague on details.

If I were Mary-Margaret's mother, I would brightly smile and say, "Oh, okay, sorry for the confusion, see you at 5 p.m." and whisk my daughter away in my car for a quick lecture about the reliability of boys.

Instead, Mary-Margaret's mother says: "Well, I'm going to a picnic with my boyfriend and his kids, in uh, about 15 minutes, so, uh …" she looks at me hopefully. She does not read my mind.

Mary-Margaret must have been looking forward to this day for a while. Probably #instagrammed #these #shorts and sent them to #her #friends for #approval. Spent a few extra hours with the blow dryer and hair iron. Thought about cool conversation topics, maybe even practised a few giggles in the mirror.

My blue-eyed skateboarding son couldn't be bothered to give her the correct time. He isn't even home to greet her and her stonewashed short shorts.

When my college roommate was in Grade 7, a guy named Romeo came up to her in the schoolyard and said: "Tell your friend Violet not to wear so much makeup. She's leaving a rainbow on my …"

Rumours about "rainbow parties" – where all the girls wear a different colour of lipstick on purpose – or rainbow bracelets where each colour represents a different sexual act – continue to shock us. When we talk about the risks of dating young, we discuss issues of consent, violence and disease.

We never talk about what is probably the greatest risk: getting your feelings hurt.

"Mom," this big girl says in a tiny voice, "Nothing like this has ever happened to me before."

Mom glances furtively toward her car, hoping for a clean getaway.

"Honey," I jump in, my hand on Mary-Margaret's arm, "I'm 42 and nothing like this has ever happened to me, either."

That doesn't mean no one ever broke up with me in the subway station while pretending to wait for a train, or no one I was seeing ever had two girls come out of his dorm room during a 3 a.m. fire drill. We all have our battle scars. As we get older, we learn how to dust ourselves off and move on. But for a 12-year-old getting her knees skinned for the first time, the pain is acute.

I look into Mary-Margaret's eyes. They are slowly filling with tears.

When I casually mention to friends that my son has a girlfriend – not his first – I get questioned. "What does having a girlfriend mean?" And the more direct, "How far do you think they are going?"

These same friends would be horrified by a teenager posting her conquests on Facebook or a boy carving notches on his frat-house headboard, but think nothing of invading Benji's personal space by asking me whose hands were where.

I've heard that sexting pictures are sometimes passed around among friends.

I wonder if we couldn't better teach children that some things are private by respecting their privacy a little more.

"Come in for a second," I offer. "Let's find Benji."

"Ben-o," I say to him over the phone, "Mary-Margaret's here."

"GRAB THE COIN! What, Mom? Why?"

"You invited her to the barbecue."

"Oh right, yeah, JUMP UP HIT THE BRICK, HIT THE BRICK! Isn't that tonight?"

"Yes sir, it is. But she's here now."

"But I'm at C's."

"Dad's coming to pick you up."

"But I'm – CAREFUL, THE ICE FLOWER! – in the middle of a game."

"Be there in five minutes."

The danger of letting your kids date young is not exclusively that they will end up pregnant at 14 or contract a horrible disease at 16. There is also a risk that they will invite a girl over, forget and go to their friend's house to play video games. A risk that feelings will be crushed and tears will be shed.

My husband takes Mary-Margaret with him to pick up Benji; Mary-Margaret's mother peels away from the curb, and I go back to slicing red onions. I am no longer ahead of schedule.

Is Benji?

Amy Fish lives in Montreal.

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