We had a great discussion about how Christians should date last Saturday on Up For Debate. However, one topic we didn’t get to discuss was how parents should navigate dating with their teenage children. Some of you have commented that you’d like some direction in this area. I certainly don’t consider myself an expert on this topic. But, having served several years in youth ministry, and having raised two sons, I have learned a few things – though admittedly, often by trial and error. My husband and I still have a daughter at home, so this is an area where we’re continuing to learn. But, I hope the following suggestions will help you as you try to instruct your kids in this area of their lives. Raising godly children is a daunting task – and trying to equip them to navigate dating relationships is seriously one of the most challenging things my husband and I have ever done. May God grant you lots of wisdom and grace as you approach this awesome responsibility.
1. Decide with your spouse when your child can date.
Mark Gregston, host of Parenting Today’s Teens, suggests parents should allow their children to date one-on-one at age 16. However, Dennis Rainey, CEO of FamilyLife, discourages any one-on-one dating until after high school. He advises parents to allow outings with a mixed group of teens when their kids are 15. Then, at age 17, they can allow their kids to double-date or go on group dates.
My husband and I lean more towards the Rainey school of dating, but I don’t think there’s any hard and fast rule. Also, I think the spiritual health of your children’s friends and suitors play a factor in these decisions. We are much more likely to give freedom when we discern that our child and their friends are spiritually healthy than when we discern the opposite. Keep in mind, though, that studies show a correlation between steady dating relationships and early sexual behavior. In other words, the later a teen dates and the less serious his or her dating relationships, the more likely it is that he or she remain sexually pure.
2. Communicate to your children whom they can date.
Second Corinthians 6:14-16 says that believers should not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. This command isn’t limited to dating and marriage relationships, but it certainly includes those. I’ll admit I dated non-Christians when I was in high school and honestly, I’m amazed I didn’t get in more trouble than I did. It was a bad idea 30 years ago, but it’s disastrous today. For most non-Christians, dating doesn’t have to accompany sex, but sex almost always accompanies dating. Studies show that 71% of 19-year-olds have had sex. Dating a non-Christian is just asking for trouble.
However, even dating those who profess faith in Christ can be problematic. Scripture warns about wolves in sheep’s clothing and nowhere is this warning more applicable than dating. A guy or girl will often say anything to woo a love interest. We need to equip our children to discern who’s really a believer. Jesus said you can know a tree by its fruit (Luke 6:43-45). Simply professing belief is not enough. A person’s speech and actions need to be consistent with their profession of faith.
3. Teach your children to treat their dates as a brother or sister.
In 1 Timothy 5, Paul instructs young Timothy to treat “younger women as sisters, in all purity.” I have two sons who are 7 and 10 years older than their baby sister. They adore our daughter and she adores them – and they would do anything to protect her. I’ve often told them to think about their sister when they’re dating – and to treat their dates the way they’d want a man to treat her. I’m not sure that means singles never kiss someone they’re dating. But, I do think it means they don’t make out with him or her. Encourage your kids to keep the physical contact to a minimum and to avoid arousing sexual desire. Remind them that not only is their date their brother or sister in Christ, he or she is also likely to be someone else’s spouse someday.
4. Set clear boundaries and discuss why you’ve set them.
A lot of dating boundaries are pretty common sense: Don’t be alone in the house together; don’t be in each other’s bedroom; don’t linger in a parked car; talk to your parents when you return from a date; respect curfew. Set clear boundaries and let your teen know that you’re not trying to inhibit his or her fun. You’re simply helping him or her avoid temptation. Notice, Scripture says flee from temptation, not “get as close to it as you can, so you can prove how strong you are.” Or, as the Puritan Preacher Thomas Brooks said, “He that will play with Satan’s bait, will quickly be taken with Satan’s hook.”
That being said, I think we need to loosen dating rules as our children get older. They are becoming adults and our parenting needs to respect that.
5. Parents should be involved as coaches, not CEOs.
Parents often err to one extreme or the other when it comes to their role in their kids’ dating. Either we try to control the relationship as a CEO – or we’re completely disengaged. I think the latter error is most common among Christians because we’ve capitulated to the culture. Culture tells us parents that our kids’ private lives are none of our business when in reality, our teenage children still need a lot of parental guidance. Parents should invite their children’s suitors to spend time with their family and should serve as a coach – discussing potential red flags, helping them think through big decisions, discerning next steps, etc…
However, parents controlling relationships, as opposed to mentoring and coaching, can cause serious problems. I think this error is common, though not always present, in so-called “courting” relationships – a model that was popularized by the 1997 book, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” Under this model, singles date only when they’re ready to marry. And, they get to know each other only within the context of their families, rather than one-on-one. Parents, in this model, play a major, sometimes a primary, role in determining whether their children are right for each other. As I already stated, I’m all for parents having input in their kids’ relationships. But, we need to give our kids room to make their own decisions. We also need to allow them room to develop and to exercise self-control, not try to manage temptation for them. If we don’t, they’ll often rebel or struggle to learn independence.
6. Date as preparation for marriage.
Our culture says that the purpose of dating is to alleviate loneliness, experiment sexually and have fun. But, as Christians, we need to teach a completely different message to our children. The purpose of dating is to prepare for marriage. If approached correctly, even dating relationships that dissolve can be positive. These relationships are basically friendships. And, each friendship can teach us how to be a better friend; what qualities we want in a friend; and also, what qualities to avoid. Eventually, you should marry your best friend. And, it’s that friendship that will stand the test of time.
When my husband and I were doing youth ministry, we noticed that bad dating relationships were Satan’s number-one way of derailing Christian kids from their walk with Christ. We’ve experienced the same thing with our own kids. Scripture says our “enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” Satan wants to use your kids’ God-given desires and attractions as bait to lure them away. As their parents, we need to recognize this spiritual battle and pray for our kids constantly. Then, we need to trust God with their lives. We can only do so much. The rest is up to our kids and to our God who is faithful.
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