Dear Auntie Leila,
I have a bunch of kids, the oldest two are 16 and 14. The oldest attends public school and thankfully, has not had a weekend social life with his classmates yet. For years, I have been repeating, “no dating until you are 18” and we have had some good conversations about the pitfalls of dating too young. We get together with some other families, and my teens do invite other teens over for games and hanging out. My son and one girl seem to gravitate towards each other and I haven’t really tackled this. It seems harmless enough, but I feel like I need to have a more thoughtful approach to the advice my husband and I give, and the rules. Without getting personal, can you share some of your wisdom on teens and dating or not dating, that kind of thing?
Ah, yes, dating.
That quaint institution… we cling to the idea, although the world has moved on without it, I’m afraid. Or rather, it means something very different from what we’d like it to mean.
I’ve had conversations with older people about this topic, and you can tell that, in their vehement enthusiasm for dating, they are remembering something from a time so long ago… maybe from the 40s… when there was plenty of cultural support for virginity before marriage, and the whole context was that you were aiming at getting together a family.
Because of the generation I belong to with all its craziness, I know how very far from that context things went. But somehow, even at this late date, we hesitate to re-think how we will do things with our own children. We continue along as if somehow our children will manage.
Which blows my mind.
If you want your children to have the wherewithal to — not to succeed at everything — who could give that to their children? But to have a good chance at being able to respond to what God is calling them to do, you have to get to the heart of things. And of course, it’s not really about being at a particular age, is it?
I fear that when we say, “No dating until 18 (or 16 or whatever)” we are still operating in that weird mindset that brings you two-piece bathing suits for toddlers and couples’ dances for tweens and Disney programs about little prepubescent boys falling in love with taller, curvy girls. In short, though we might reject those aberrations, we are still buying into the notion that the mystery of union between the sexes is about feelings only, feelings full stop, feelings with no plan, no responsibility, and above all, no risk.
To be practical, I am going to suggest that you discuss with your husband this question:
Is it not to discover if the person is someone you would like to marry?
Thus, if a guy, of whatever age, is not in a position to get married, should he be dating? If a girl or woman is not in a position — that is, ready emotionally, physically, and spiritually — to get married, should she be dating?I believe that an 18-year-old (and even younger) is very much capable of falling in love and having deep feelings about another person. We parents are so clueless about the interior life of our child. We think they are impervious, unaware, superficial — when really, they are, if anything, more passionate and more whole-hearted than we are about many things, simply because we are getting worn down!
If he is not in a position to get married, then is it wise to put himself in the position of having those feelings encouraged and acted upon?
For instance, a girl may be ready at 18 to start a family in all the ways that I mentioned. In our times (and ever since college became a universal goal and marriage got later and later or even just dispensed with), we can hardly believe it, but it’s true — and many a girl would be rescued from a lot of heartache if she could just get married to a good guy already.
However, in our society, it’s unlikely that she would be dating a man capable of providing for her, although it’s possible even now (and I myself did meet the Chief at a young age — he’s 10 years older than me, so you can think about that!). But an 18-year-old guy — extremely few in our society are able to set out providing for a family at that age. Thus, he should not be dating. (Although, again, there are some rare, very responsible young men who own their own businesses or farms and could do it. Their parents’ job would be to make them prove it!)
What I wish everyone would understand is that keeping your son out of the dating scene is not because he isn’t capable of being serious about a girl. It’s because he IS. Do you see?
I think that if young people were encouraged by their parents to see dating as a means to marriage, they would accept the idea that it’s unwise to go there if the answer to the question “are you ready to get married?” is no.
Auntie Leila hastens to add that they should be encouraged to make friends, go in groups, see how their friends interact with family members, get to know lots of people, observe their conduct (as dear Jane Austen puts it*), and in general have fun and think about what makes a good and attractive companion.
In our family we tell our kids that there is no reason to be alone with a person of the opposite sex if you are not in a position to (at least in theory) pursue marriage with them — if you don’t know them well enough for that to be a possibility. In other words, you would have to already be good friends with the person and be mature enough to be considering marriage.
This is simple prudence. A guy can avoid much unpleasantness in the way of unfounded accusations if his dad seriously talks to him about not being alone with a girl he barely knows (even if he thinks he knows her). And of course for a girl, the reasons are obvious. Seriously, my friends, what do you think it means to be pro-life? In helping an unwed mother? What about in preventing the conditions in the first place?
It isn’t so much about “rules” as helping them to take responsibility — but there is one rule that really helps. Deirdre tells me that she carried this one rule of ours with her to college and it gave her freedom without her ever thinking much about it — “There’s really no reason to be alone in private [as opposed to taking a walk or otherwise being in public] with a boy!”** Of course, in college, it’s even more important, since to them a dorm room feels like their “home” but it is in fact a room with… a bed. Keeping the door open whenever she had a male visitor kept her comfortable and prudence satisfied.
Shut that door and you are in a danger zone. To be blunt.
Let’s start protecting our children. In the era when dating was carefree, fun, and a great way to get to know someone, it also was shored up with many taboos and standards, and romance wasn’t the hyped unrealistic nonsense it is today. I’m afraid we just have to let go of that dating idea, at least for now.
It’s good to let our children know that we think it’s wonderfully normal for attractions to happen. The nicer and more wholesome the kids, the less surprised we should be! Our job as parents is to keep them on track with their real goals, which are, at this age, to get themselves in a position to be ready to say yes to God’s will for their lives. Getting into position requires a lot of hard work and practice with self control.
These are exactly the discussions to have whenever it comes up. It can be so normal and easy to do, merely by commenting on behavior and observations you and your kids make. It helps for eventual mature thinking. If they become infatuated, it’s good to help them see that these are normal and natural feelings, but that it’s unjust to pursue them if you can’t offer the person what he or she really wants in their deepest heart, which is a life-long commitment.
We all know that playing with those feelings is incredibly unwise. And most kids who date are indeed playing — play-acting — and then they are setting themselves up for a sad future of using other people or being used.
Thus, to answer the question, we prefer not to set an age for dating, but to discuss all these things and help the children see that the purpose of it all is to have a happy family some day, to which you are bringing a clear conscience and a pure heart.
Why not start to pray for their future spouse with your children? He or she is out there…
I encourage you to think way outside of the box and go to the heart of the matter. Discuss it with your husband, pray about it, and see what you think.
*I really recommend The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After. For girls it is a great discussion-starter — if they are very familiar with the books (and only if — no use ruining for them the best books ever written). When all is said and done, I think it’s good to be clear on one thing the book somewhat forgets to mention, which is that it’s a sin to engage in premarital sex. But with that as a given, it’s an intelligent exploration of what how to attain happiness with another person, Jane Austen–style.