Reader Question: When Should You Allow Your Teenager to Date?

Reader Question of the Week

Every Monday I post a Reader Question and take a stab at answering it. This week, though, we’re going to do something a little bit different. We’re going to take a whole week to answer this question:

How do you raise teens who will make good decisions?

Lately I’ve been noticing a bit of a disturbing trend in some of the comments on older posts. Whenever I talk about setting limits for teenagers, especially when it comes to dating in high school, someone invariably comments with something like this:

The quickest way to make sure a teenager does something is to tell them they can’t. To me, maintaining a good relationship with my daughter is the most important thing to me, so we haven’t told her she can’t do things. We just trust her, and we’re there for her, because as parents, that’s all you can do.

I find that a very defeatist attitude. And so I’ve been thinking and wrestling with how to tackle it, and here’s what I’ve decided.

Today: I’ve asked Barrett Johnson, the author of the amazing book The Talk(S) (about having continuing talks with your kids), to share about when you should allow your teen to date.

Tuesday: Rather than talk myself about teens and dating (since I’ve done that already), I’ve asked my 16-year-old daughter to join us on the blog and guest post.

Wednesday: I’m jumping in to talk about how to model a good relationship with your kids.

Thursday: I’ll wrap up the series by asking my oldest daughter, who is now 19, to write about why it is that she never rebelled.

I think hearing from my daughters on this one is likely better than hearing from me!

This is going to be our “You can do it, parents!” week. You CAN have a great relationship with your kids. Your kids WON’T automatically mess up. It is possible to raise kids who won’t date too young. And so today we’re going to ask the question, “when should you allow your teenager to date?”

Here’s Barrett Johnson, author of the AMAZING book The Talk(s), guest posting. I read an early version of his book, which is all about having ongoing talks with your kids as they grow so that you can steer them in the right direction when it comes to relationships. He explains it so well, and really helps to empower parents!

When Should You Let Teenagers Date“If everyone jumped off a cliff, would you do it, too?”

Every parent has used some form of that line before. I’m not sure it has ever worked to change anyone’s behavior, but we use it anyway. It’s our attempt to convince our kids that what our world practices as normal behavior is often severely skewed and even badly broken.

I believe this definitely applies to typical teen dating habits. With clear evidence found in the horrific divorce rate and with rampant sexual sin in both married adults and young people, we cannot assume that our current western system is working. Wise parents will both realize this and then be deliberate to equip their kids accordingly.

There is not a clear directive of exactly what that looks like for each particular family. Instead of looking for that ever-elusive formula, it is our responsibility as parents to prayerfully seek God’s leadership regarding how it will look in each of our unique situations.

That is why I don’t think it is wise for parents to give their kids a set age (as in “wait until you are sixteen”) when they can begin dating.

A strict line like that is full of potential disastrous complications. Telling a boy who is 15 years and 11 months old that he cannot have a girlfriend and then a month later telling him he can (and giving him keys to the car) is too much freedom preceded by too little practice. Not much good will come of that.

While there may not be a firm recommended age where every teenager should be given the green light to begin dating, one study clearly makes the argument that it is wise to put it off as long as possible. This is especially if we desire to help our kids to remain sexually pure leading into marriage. A number of years ago, USA Today reported the shocking correlation between the age that dating begins and the percentage of those who had sex before graduation. Here’s what they found…

When Teens Date Young it has Repercussions

Age Began Dating and Percent Who Had Sex Before GraduationThe takeaway: we are free to encourage our 6th or 7th grade sons to have girlfriends and to let them “date” within the context of our homes. We have every right to drive our 13 year-old daughters to the movies with their “boyfriends.” It seems innocent enough, but don’t be naïve about this research. We can assume that this won’t happen to our kids, but the evidence strongly suggests that the earlier a kid starts dating, the more likely he or she is to become sexually active. Blindly sticking our heads in the sand and insisting that our kids are different and that they will somehow beat the odds is irresponsible in light of the data.

You’re going to have to tell you kids that they may not be allowed to date until well after many of their peers. Beginning these discussions when your kids are far away from any interest in the opposite sex is ideal. For here is the mistake that most parents make: they do not start setting parameters on dating until their kids start exploring their first relationship. If a young teen is already there and her parents start dropping rules on her for the first time, it may get ugly.

Think about Your Guidelines for Teen Dating Early

For this reason alone, it is not a bad idea for you to begin considering guidelines for dating while your kids are still in diapers. If you don’t begin to show them at a very early age what will be normal in your home, they are likely to assume that their “rules of engagement” are identical to everybody else’s.

If you haven’t told them any different, why wouldn’t they think that?

The Talk(s)Barrett Johnson is the husband to Jenifer and the father of five great kids (including four adolescents). He serves as the Family Minister at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church outside of Atlanta and his blog, INFO for Families, gets more than 40,000 hits a month. He has just released his first book, “The Talk(s): A Parent’s Guide to Critical Conversations About Sex, Dating, and Other Unmentionables.” It has been created to help every parent to equip their kids to make wise choices in a sexually-charged culture. Find out more at Get the ebook here, or the paperback here.

Tune in tomorrow for the second in our series, when my 16-year-old daughter explains why she’s not dating in high school!


  1. Completely agree.
    We have told our kids that they can’t date until they are 30. :)
    We’ve also told them, when they demanded a serious answer, that when they think they are ready to date, come talk to us and we’ll discuss what that might look like. I’ve told them they won’t be allowed to date as young as I was, and that the older they are when they start dating, the less times they’ll get their hearts broken before they meet the person they end up marrying. We talk about the joy of hanging out with a large group of friends, and that dating can become a distraction from the things they really want to do in life.
    They still weren’t happy, and demanded a “number”. So we’ve said 16 would be the absolute minimum, but 18 is more likely, and that waiting is always better.
    We’ll see how this plays out – the older two are 13 and 11, and still make gagging noises if their father and I hug!

    • I was on the receiving end of these exact conversations as a teen. I was first told 16 and then when I was 15, “the magic age” became 18. I found the whole process extremely frustrating and saw my mother’s restrictions as her way of trying to control my life for no good reason.

      As an adult, I agree that waiting until 18 is a much better idea. I just think we need to be careful with implementation. Starting the conversations early is a good start, and I am hoping for other practical suggestions as the week goes on.

      • Hi Anonymous! I think my oldest daughter has a lot to say about this, and I’m hoping that will be some of the stuff she mentions in her post on Thursday. Basically, for us it was far less about rules and absolute lines than it was about having this ongoing conversation that Barrett Johnson talks about, so that the kids internalized our values and figured out on their own what was best for them.

        As my kids have grown up I’m less attached to the “absolute rules”, because I can see the exceptions. But I’m even more attached to the concept that we simply must have a ton of family time and a ton of conversations so that the kids understand what you believe and why you believe it. It’s really only when they “own” the values that they’ll stick to them.

  2. Do you have a link to that USA Today study? I would like to check it out.

  3. Yes! This is a VERY important topic!! So excited to hear what your daughters say about it!!
    Thanks for sharing!

  4. And, on the other side of this question, many of the high school kids aren’t dating at all. Some are “hooking up,” but for the kids who aren’t, the teen “rules” are less defined.

    My nieces are both in high school, come from a great family, love the Lord, are beautiful and interesting (I’m not biased at all!) and have never been asked on a date. They are 17 and 15. The christian boys in their youth group don’t date at all. The christian boys at school are more interested in playing video games.

    It’s strange!

    • Robyn, I’d agree with you. I think there’s a general trend to “grow up” later–that’s actually the subject of my column this week. It can be especially frustrating for a lot of teenage girls! And there’s much more of an emphasis on “hooking up” or having a physical relationship rather than saying, “I like you and I’d like to commit to being exclusive, at least for now.” It really leaves people in a very precarious emotional position.

      • If I may Sheila, I think (possibly) the main reason why her high school nieces aren’t being asked on dates is that our society has made things so toxic for older boys and younger men to approach girls socially. They don’t know what is and is not acceptable. So of course, these girls are NOT going to get asked out on dates. Will not happen.

        More to the point, we don’t know for sure if the Christian boys in their youth group, if her nieces are even interested in these boys. We just know that they would rather play video games. Perhaps these girls aren’t interested in them and the boys have picked up their disinterest and (as a result) don’t approach them? Perhpas these boys would rather spend their little money on video games than dates?

        Expecting a boy to say to a girl “I like you and I’d like to commit to being exclusive, at least for now.” is not something boys are going to do. Just will not happen. And it is increasling NOT going to happen for marriage either because marriage (thanks to no-fault-divorce) is like saying “I like you and I’d like to commit to being exclusive, at least for now.” You think Christian boys are going to go in for this?
        innocentbystander recently posted…Go all one way or go the other…My Profile

    • SingleLady28 says:

      Just wanted to weigh in on this as a single lady in her later twenties. Robyn, I am sure there is nothing wrong with your nieces. The dating landscape is just very different these days as many have stated in the comments. In Christian circles, guys generally wait to ask girls out on dates until they believe things could move toward marriage. (Girls are likewise hesitant to go out on a date unless they can imagine marriage in the future.) Because of this, I’ve seen many of my female peers go through high school, college, and beyond without being asked out on a date. (And yes, “beyond” can mean into the thirties.) There’s nothing necessarily wrong with these women. It’s just part of our current evangelical culture.

  5. Kids do not date they hook up. They also spend time together at school where they met. So unless a parent plans on home schooling “no dating ” rule means nothing if gina tingle and social status comes into plan.

  6. Stephanie in ARkansas says:

    Wow this could not come at a more perfect time. My daughter just turned 15 and I had a boy ask me why she wasnt allowed to date.
    She and I have had many discussions on the subject and several included her dad. Finally we struck a deal and she had input as well. this is our deal-:

    she can date when she is 16. BUT first the boy has to spend 4 family events with us. this can be an evening including dinner, fishing trip, or other family outing or just hanging out at the house- but with the FAMILY not them off some where on their own. Then the three of us(Dad, her and I) will sit down and discuss how we feel about the boy, about how she acts, reacts to him, and how they are together. Then she said only if we all agree she will agree to two “dates” with him before she decides they are actually “dating” – her words :) If he really wants to date her he should be more than willing to do this.
    As I have explained to her and this boy – the purpose is that he gets to know her away from school and know our family. So he will also have some respect for her, and her family – the more respect you have for someone the less likely you are to want to hurt, or disappoint them.
    Even if/when there is a breakup I want it to involve enough that they do so as amicably as possible. for both of them!
    My daughter is a strong christian very steadfast in her beliefs and faith. But i have seen too many teens to early 20s (boys especially) committing suicide over breakups. It breaks my heart. So truly we want to be there for both kids.
    why 16 ? Because she made some poor choices regarding friends and Boys at age 14 and she wanted to mature some more and also we thought it was a good time she will still be at home and get some dating/ relationship experience before she goes to college. She doesnt want her first dating experience to be on top of starting college and all that entails. I think she is very wise.

    • Stephanie in ARkansas says:

      also my 19 year old son has dated very little, He has been very picky to not surround himself with girls who are known to sleep around. He goes to social events but when booze and bad behavior break out he politely leaves. unfortunately girls – even good girls are attracted to bad boys. boisterous boys. and alot of good christian boys are more quiet, not in the limelight, and the girls fail to see what they are missing.

      But as our son has said His wife whoever, whenever, if ever – she is – will be worth his efforts to remain pure and true for God, her, and himself

      • Stephanie,

        “…unfortunately girls – even good girls are attracted to bad boys. boisterous boys. and alot of good christian boys are more quiet, not in the limelight, and the girls fail to see what they are missing.”

        Bad boys have looks and confidence. The good girls are attracted to the boys who have confidence. The confidence part is what draws them in so to speak. That might be all that your good Christian son is lacking. The term for this is “GAME.” If he gets GAME, then the girls (even the ones only attracted to the bad boys) might start noticing your son.

        Girls like the alpha men. It is very difficult to explain what it takes to be alpha to someone who isn’t (or can’t) but this tends to be the dividing line between boys/men who draw girls/women like flies, and the ones who do not. And yes, good Christian boys can still have confidence and GAME.

        Might I offer your 19 year old son a suggestion: fill your time. If you are in school full time, take a part time (or even a full-time) job. If you work full time, go to school at night. Work out as much as you can. Diet to lose the fat. But go to church and continue to worship God and our Savior Christ. Focus on making yourself the best Christian man you can be. And when in social settings, look your best. Always. And when you are speaking to girls/women, ask them about their lives. Never toot your own horn, ever. An alpha doesn’t need to show off. Let them ask you about yourself when they are ready. And downplay what you do (make it as if everyone and anyone can do it.) Confidence!
        innocentbystander recently posted…Go all one way or go the other…My Profile

  7. Mommaoffourbabies says:

    I think we need to be honest with our daughters about dating, love and sex and reward them for their academic accomplishments. Girls need to be told the raw and honest truth; nothing good comes out of a relationship that occurs before an age where marriage is a good idea. Kids need to focus on things like good family relationships, academics and extra curricular activities. Dating should be for the purpose of preparing for marriage, and lets be honest – how often does that preparation need to start before age 18? We should teach our daughters to focus on getting ahead in life. Do they want to raise a child before their careers can even be developed? How painful is it to go down to WIC to have to get food stamps for formula and have your babies on Medicaid? Painful. Get a career or a husband with one first so you can provide for your family when you’re ready for one. Take it from someone who snuck around with a 24 year old when she was 16, who had a boyfriend too early that was clingy and wouldn’t “let” her go away to a good college who ended up with 4 kids on welfare and never finished college. You don’t wanna end up having to elope and not able to afford a wedding or a honeymoon either. I did that – twice. You need time to travel, develop good social relationships. I wish I had had more time to have girl friends. Girls these days don’t babysit as much as in the olden days to know how hard it really is raising babies. We should have them take care of 4 kids for a week or so. Also – we need to teach them to take time to find the RIGHT Godly man. Divorce is too common these days and it’s the kids that suffer the worst! How would she like to raise her kids alone and have to see her ex every weekend to give her babies away? My point – lets teach these girls not to rush and dating before marriage is a good idea is rushing. Just my opinion. I wish I could go back in time and talk to myself.

    • Momma of four babies,

      You said…

      “Divorce is too common these days and it’s the kids that suffer the worst! How would she like to raise her kids alone and have to see her ex every weekend to give her babies away? My point – lets teach these girls not to rush and dating before marriage is a good idea is rushing. Just my opinion. I wish I could go back in time and talk to myself.”

      …I wish we could ALL go back in time and vote out of office any candidate that added to their platform, the support of “no-fault-divorce.” Because really, that is the problem Momma of four. If you want to be honest with your daughters about dating, you might want to be honest with yourself about marriage and divorce. Because we made divorce an option where the marriage contract could be ended by either party at any moment for any reason (or no reason) you are the one who is advocating right now that she get ahead in life. I think deep down, you of all people know that a Godly man is far less likely to sign up for this contract that is nothing of the kind.

      More to the point, she should NOT be having kids without a husband. No husband, no kids. Simple as that. It doesn’t matter how wonderful her career is. I hope hers is the best. But a woman should never be bringing children into this world without a husband no matter if she can support them or not. That is not fair to her children.
      innocentbystander recently posted…Go all one way or go the other…My Profile

      • Wow, way to judge Mommaoffourbabies…how do you know she was not married to abusive men who she needed to get away from? Or is she supposed to stay in those relationships?

        Mommaoffourbabies made good points, as have you in other comments. Please, please, don’t judge someone on getting divorced when you don’t know why the divorce happened in the first place.

  8. Sheila, Thank you so much for tackling this topic this week. Though my kids are still young I often think about how we will handle all this. I think I’ll be sharing the articles with my husband so we can have a conversation about it. Though we are both Christians, we come from such different backgrounds that whenever I did try to approach the subject, we had such different opinions. Also, do you happen to have any thoughts (perhaps a previous post) about letting little kids call a friend a “boy/girlfriend”? It drives me nuts, but I know it is so common – I need someone who has intelligently articulated a Godly view on it, so I can learn how to talk about that too.

  9. Sheila,

    I’m really looking forward to the rest of the posts this week. With three adolescent boys, this is a topic that’s on my mind, though it hasn’t been an issue yet in our house. Like you, we haven’t laid down concrete rules about it, but we’ve tried to keep an open conversation going with the boys about relationships and honoring God.

    But what really caught my attention just a few months ago, is a new-ish book called Sex, Dating, and Relationships (Gerald Hiestand and Jay Thomas). LOVED IT. It’s not a courtship vs. dating debate and it’s not a bunch of rules. Rather, they say that we need to stop thinking about dating as a special category of relationships and treat it as an activity. (If that sounds odd, hang with me a moment.) In a nutshell…

    The Bible talks about three kinds of relationships – with your spouse, your relatives, and your neighbors. Therefore, God gives us guidelines for how to relate to our spouses, relatives, and neighbors. Makes sense so far, right?

    Well, those are the three categories, so who are we dating? Our neighbors. And we need to treat them as neighbors. Which means NO sexual/sexualized activity (I mean, kissing Aunt Myrtle isn’t sexualized, but kissing your date might be very sexualized). And it means that there are no grounds to demand an exclusive relationship. Dating is something you DO, not something you ARE. It’s not a special category of relationship.

    Obviously the premise makes a lot more sense when it’s fleshed out in the book, which I urge parents to read 😀 It’s not expensive and not long – under 150 pages. Makes a whole lo of sense to me. My boys will be reading it next.

    Julie recently posted…Grasshopper DaysMy Profile

    • Abby Jensen says:

      Thanks for sharing this! I love this idea. I thinking what helped me to understand dating is to truly understand what it means to be brothers/sisters in Christ. Christian men and women are brothers/sisters in Christ, and dating doesn’t change that. Even if they are friends, courting, dating, pursuing marriage, or even engaged- they are still brother/sister in Christ. It’s only after marriage that changes.

  10. Our daughter didn’t date until she was 16. We were fortunate in that it wasn’t a big deal for her. She was never boy-crazy and that desiring of a boyfriend when she was younger. She had some boy friends, but was never looking for any romantice involvement. We got off easy I suppose. Things became much more difficult when she turned 18 and decided she wanted to leave home and move 2,000 miles away…and did. We have seen her two days in the last 6 years. it’s been rather heart-breaking most of the time.
    Dan recently posted…“Look away! I’m hideous.”: Part 1My Profile

    • Dan, I’m curious, are you paying for this 2,000-mile-away daughter? If so, you are sadly the cause of your own heartbreak. You can be tough with her and fix it if you are paying for it, by withholding your money. If I’ve made assumptions (that you’re paying for your daughter’s college degree) that are untrue, please forgive me.

  11. The question has to be, what is the purpose of dating? Explicit courtship is ordered toward finding a mate to marry; friendship is non-sexual and non-exclusive. If dating is not one or the other of these, then it is morally problematic for Christians.

    We should not be encouraging casual simulations of exclusive, sexual relationships minus the actual sex. Besides its being an occasion of sin and a sore temptation for young men and women, it does something worse: it trains them to see simultaneously casual and sexual-tensioned relationships as normal. It paves the way for serial monogamy and the divorce culture.

  12. My son has been dating the same girl for two years from our church. He just turned 15. Two years ago he said he wanted to start dating. My response was when you in 9th grade you can. My husbands response was 3 years ago was how are you going to date? You can’t drive or go anywhere without us but I will let you date once you learn how to date. My husband picked two girls from our church to practice teaching my son how to date and we did this for a year. My husband,son and I would go out and take the girl out to dinner, to events or just come to our house and hang out. I thought my husband had lost it but in the end we taught both my son and the other girls how to be treated, what to look for in a godly mate, how to open doors, meet parents when picking up your date and so much more. One of the girls ended up being my sons girlfriend after a year of teaching and so blessed that they see the value of what a girlfriend or boyfriend and future mate qualities should be. All the credit goes to my husband as when I first heard what we were going to start teaching my son I really wanted to wait till he was 16.

  13. Jan FinkeN says:

    I was wondering if there was a standard definition of what “dating” is. My twin boys, age 12, 7th grade, seem to think “dating” is when you are texting a girl. You don’t see her outside of school, you don’t sit with her at lunch or anything, but you are “dating” if you text her. (I’m checking the texts and they are definitely innocent texts — nothing inappropriate) I’m wondering what the official definition would be that I should say “NO” to. Thank you so much. Jan

  14. I was taught from the time I was a young child that we did not date until we were 16. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we were taught that in church as a child and teenager, so it didn’t sound strange at all coming from my parents as well. There is actually a pamphlet given to all the youth that talks about things like dating:
    We were also to only go on group dates at 16 and start dating as only a couple at age 18. It makes sense, since there is no reason for teenagers to get serious with someone at a young age and get into trouble, causing heartache and problems down the road.

  15. Innocentbystander I can totally relate to what you are talking about and Craig you have a very good point! From a Christians point of view, you are both correct.

  16. First off, I love the idea of talking about it without setting age limits. How ever, I would like to offer a slightly different perspective. My parents never had any “rules” about when dating should begin or not. I had silly middle school “boyfriends” that I wrote notes to or walked to class with,but we never went anywhere. I went out on my first real date at 15 and had my first boyfriend that year as well. I think overall my parents just had high expectations for our behavior, and trusted us to make good decisions. I never had a set curfew either. Now, dating for us looked a lot like hanging around the kitchen table with my family or watching tv. We went out as well, but really spent most of our time hanging with the family b/c well….my family is cool;) Anyway, I started dating my future husband at 17 and we were married by the time I was 20. We are still happily married 7 years later:) That was not a mistake and we were not “too young”. Our parents raised us to be responsible adults and then let us grow up rather than try to keep us young. I think you sell kids short when you tell them they aren’t ready to think about marriage until 18. A few generations ago people were getting married at 16 and 17. Many of those people are still married today! I think it’s less about age and more about raising your children to be responsible with their choices.

  17. Jessica says:

    This is very interesting to read! I’m a 19 year old girl and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked my parents their parenting techniques and such. My sisters and I were never really given a dating age. They were always just really clear with us their expectations for a guy for us and they were always very open about their mistakes as young adults. Neither we’re raised as Christians–my moms household was extremely strict while my dads household was the extreme opposite. Because they were both open about their past I think it allowed me to feel they werent trying to dictate my life but that they really wanted us to make smart decisions. My mom always said to us “you’re our gem and I want you to find someone that we will feel is a good setting for that gem.” Yes OFCOURSE my parents had rules and were reasonable, so my guess is that if I were thirteen years old wanting to go out on a date by myself they probably would have said no, but they DEFINITLY instilled in us the importance of valuing yourself and that a relationship doesn’t define you. Unfortunately that’s a message from society that a lot of young people receive and its a message parents have to be PROACTIVE to work AGAINST. My sisters and I got asked out here and there but I didn’t actually have my first relationship till 17 and my older sister until she was 21. And no neither of us “hooked up” before than, in fact the only person Kissed was that boy I was in a relationship with. I think what it comes down to is not just put all the rules and focus on “dating” and “age” and such but instead to really help set your child’s standards. Treat them well, value them, and communicate to them that they should not only be valued in a relationship the right way but know how to value another. A big reason I waited so long to date and why i am not consistently dating just to date, because I understand that I need to be mature and know how to truly value someone to be in a strong relationship. I don’t want to offer up my heart lightly and I don’t want to take someone else’s heart lightly.

  18. I agree, put it off as long as possible. As a man who knows what it is like to be a teen, and now as a father of two girls and a boy, I can’t stress enough how boys and teens are just not mature enough to date. The testosterone in their systems during adolescent years is firing rampantly, and they really haven’t yet matured to understand what it means to care for and to love a young lady. Unfortunately, boys are under the influence of porn, which completely distorts their image of girls. They objectify girls, and until they mature out of that, they are in no position to start dating. I have so much more to say about this, and if you are interested, please visit my blog post. This is a very serious topic for parents and their children.

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  1. […] how you can encourage your child to think like this? Barrett Johnson, who guest posted yesterday, has a great new book out about having the Talk(s) with your kids! It’s the best book […]

  2. […] about raising kids to make good decisions. On Monday we talked about how to help kids understand it’s better to wait to date, and yesterday my 16-year-old shared her thoughts on why she’s not dating in high school. […]

  3. […] people speak about how to raise kids to make good decisions. We started on Monday about how to raise kids who won’t date too young, and then on Tuesday my 16-year-old chimed in telling us why she’s not dating in high […]

  4. […] what marital struggle you’re facing right now. Plus, she has advice on EVERYTHING, from teenage dating to navigating sexual incompatibility to dealing with your husband’s porn use to helping our […]

  5. […] people speak about how to raise kids to make good decisions. We started on Monday about how to raise kids who won’t date too young, and then on Tuesday my 16-year-old chimed in telling us why she’s not dating in high […]

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