Parents often try to figure out the right way to make decisions by watching what other parents do. This isn't always the best way to decide what is right for your pre-teen or adolescent. Some parents would rather let their child do what they want than deal with the confrontation that might ensue if they forbid certain activities. One of the biggest decisions parents make is when to allow a child to begin dating.
I remember the case of a friend whose son developed a strong friendship with a girl his age. They were both 11 years old. At first it seemed rather sweet to me - puppy love of sorts. I became concerned, however, when I realized they were having sleepovers and were spending almost every minute of free time together. It was almost an obsessive relationship. Remember, these kids were 11 years old! A few other people told me, this is how kids are today. They mature much younger. Do they really? I have not seen evidence of this. Maybe they are more jaded, more exposed to adult influences via television, movies, and video games. But are they really more mature?
What does it mean to be mature? Does it mean you know about "stuff" - more than your parents did at that age? Or does it mean you know how to responsibly behave, deal with the complexities of human relationships, and make good choices? I think the latter. Being precocious or jaded is not the same thing as being emotionally and psychologically mature.
So then, when is a teen old enough to date? This is largely a personal decision by parents, but you might find many external factors influencing your decision, and these factors might be better ignored. Maybe you live in an urban setting, where kids are exposed to a much more complicated world at a young age. You hear all the kids are dating at age 12, and they have co-ed sleepovers, parties where parents lay low, and other dating type activities. Does this mean you are a square or not "with it" because you believe 12 is simply too young to date? You are not a square. You are a parent, and you know your child better than anyone else. You should never feel pressured by community norms to allow your child to participate in activities you feel are not age-appropriate.
Many times parents feel that boys should be able to date whenever they like, as if they are not vulnerable to the risks of dating too young but girls are. Boys are as affected by the emotional entanglements of dating as are girls. Allowing boys to date too early can be as problematic as allowing girls to do so.
The Talk. Have you had "the talk" with your kids? And has this been a constructive, honest discussion about dating, relationships, and (yes) sex? Did you back off when it got uncomfortable? Your child will be less uncomfortable with this discussion if you are not uncomfortable. Deal with these issues in a practical manner and don't sabotage the talk by feeling embarrassed for having it. If you don't teach your children these things, someone else will. Do you want to leave it to strangers?
You may have noticed, I did not give an appropriate age for teens to start dating. Every teen is different. If you communicate well with your adolescent and know their level of maturity and ability to be responsible for their behavior and make difficult decisions (such as saying no when pressured for sex), you can make the decision as to when they are old enough to date. You can also set very strict rules about how dating begins: where they can go, how long, how late, and whether they can be alone with the other person. Be sure to always set consequences that will occur should your teen decide to break the rules, and more important, follow through on those consequences without fail.