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Helping your child navigate the dating scene

I remember when my oldest son went on his first date as a high school freshman. It was hardly the stuff of romantic legend. Since neither he nor his girlfriend could yet drive, their “date” consisted of sitting in a corner booth at Culver’s while I parked myself in a booth nearby and tried to be inconspicuous. I think the date may have ended with an awkward handshake. If only dating could remain this innocent! But as our teens get older and their relationships become more serious, what’s a parent’s role as a child dates? How much—or how little—do we get involved?

From the outset, be very clear about dating parameters. Ask where, when, and what questions. Give firm expectations about rules and curfews, and enforce consequences when rules are broken.

Meet your child’s date, and connect with his or her parents, if possible. Even if you can’t meet in person, connect via phone call or text and communicate often. It’s very important for both sets of parents to be a “team” when it comes to dating expectations and guidelines.

Have THE TALK with your child—again. Sorry, I know it will be cringe-worthy and awkward, but your child needs to learn about sex from you, not the Internet or peers. Look at what God says about purity in relationships (1 Corinthians 6:18-20), and read together Galatians 2:20 to remind your teen that Christ lives in him. Discuss the very real consequences of a sexual relationship outside of marriage—everything from STDs to pregnancy to emotional and spiritual impacts.

Be your child’s “brain.” It’s a scientific fact that the brain isn’t fully wired until about age 25. So . . . the developing teen brain + raging hormones = the opportunity for some very poor choices. Parents can help be their child’s surrogate brain during the teen years. Although teens have to learn to make their own choices and understand the consequences of their actions, we can help guide them through the dating minefield.

Model healthy and loving male/female relationships in your home. Dads, cherish your wife in front of your daughters. Moms, hold your sons accountable by teaching them to respect you and respect women. Also talk about what is and is not acceptable in a dating relationship. Verbal, emotional, and physical abuse are NEVER OK. If your child is uncomfortable or injured in a relationship, teach him to speak up.

Be realistic about your teen’s dating journey. Are you married to the first person you dated? It happens, but it’s not likely. Keep in mind that dating for our teens is about exploring who they are and what they are looking for in a future spouse. Don’t push too hard or encourage your child’s dating relationship to be more serious than it should, yet don’t be so hands-off that you are unaware of what is happening.

Pray continually. I recently told a friend, “I will pray for you. It’s the least I can do.” She gently corrected me, “No, it’s the most you can do.” She’s right. We forget how powerful and effective prayer is. Bring your child’s dating relationship to God in prayer. Ask him to help your child remain pure, make wise choices, and stay safe. Also pray for a God-fearing spouse for your child someday, if they choose to marry. Finally, pray for patience and understanding and to be able to lovingly keep the lines of communication open with your teen as he navigates the world of dating.

Ann Jahns and her husband, Thad, have three sons and a recently emptied nest.

One dad’s guide to surviving the dating years

I’m a parent of 2 boys and 2 girls ages 15 to 22. I have a front row seat to view the corn maze called courting. I admit to thoughts of electronic surveillance, homing devices, and background checks. Making it more complicated is that the way my kids date is as unique as they are. They open up to my wife and me in different ways and to varying degrees.

Along the way, I have learned a few things:

  • First crushes are an innocent way of saying, “I like you and want to spend time with you.” Young teens are practicing their dating legs. They are learning social skills. The early years are building the skills they need for future and more serious relationships.
  • You can never prevent them from getting hurt. Sometimes a parent sees and offers caution such as, “Does the person to whom you’re giving your heart make you a better person or bring you down? Liking someone is one thing, but if he makes you feel worse about yourself, ditch him. I don’t care how good-looking he is.” Yet they still get hurt . . . and your heart breaks when your child’s heart breaks.
  • Take their feelings seriously. I never joke or make light of their feelings. I may view it as puppy love. But when seen through the lens of a teenager, those feelings of the moment are under a magnifying glass. They are huge and all-consuming. Validate that their feelings are real . . . and realize that they may change at any moment.

I’m still learning:

  • To know when to quit talking so I can be a better listener. A good listener will be able to repeat everything back. A deep listener internalizes it, mulls it around, and empathizes with a child. A note of caution—being a listener doesn’t qualify you as their “relationship fixer.” Parents can’t fix relationships. I may want to offer advice on every conversation point. But more important than getting my point across is allowing them to share. Which means your tongue may bleed from biting it.
  • Not to be afraid to ask the hard questions: “Does your boyfriend drink?” “Are you getting in the car with him?” “Will there be parents supervising that party?”

Sometimes, a boyfriend/girlfriend can be controlling, like when you see a child with ONLY this one person and no longer with his friends. But differentiate between a red flag and a child who is just private. There’s a difference between hiding things and not wanting to talk about things.

Finally, I believe that the best way to model dating for your children is to treat your spouse well. It’s like the map that helps them through that corn maze. . . .

Donn Dobberstein and his wife, Beth, have four children ranging in age from 15 to 22.

What’s a parent’s role in dating?

Ah, the halcyon days of dating! The excitement, the romance, the mystery! Will he call? Does she like me? But now, you are the parent, and the word “dating” seems more worrisome than wonderful. What is your role as a parent in Christian courtship?

Pray (1 Thessalonians 5:17): God would have us pray about everything. Certainly early and often prayers for our child and his or her future spouse and all things dating fall under this category.

Teach (Proverbs 22:6): Godly conversations about the blessings of dating, marriage, and sex should also start early and continue age appropriately as your child matures. Not entirely comfortable with these conversations? Christian books to the rescue! Always remind your child that he or she is a special and loved child of God—single, dating, or married.

Model (1 Corinthians 13): Actions speak louder than words! Pray that God gives you the strength to make your marriage a Christian model of sacrificial love. Show your child that your marriage is a priority and a blessing. Fathers, show respect to your wives and daughters. Mothers, encourage your husbands and sons in their Christian roles.

Advise (Psalm 119:105): As dating age approaches (in our family rules, that’s approximately age 16, because that seemed like a good age, and it’s no fun to have your parents drive you on dates), look for moments like car rides or walking the dog that are good talking and listening times. You can regale them with stories of your own courtship and marriage but also remind them that while dating can be fun, the ultimate purpose is to look for a husband or wife, and that is serious business. Most importantly, continue to point them to God’s Word. How about a Saturday coffee outing that includes a Bible study with your child, looking at passages on God’s love for us, our love for God and others, friendship, marriage, God’s timing, temptation, true beauty, forgiveness, what to look for in a marriage partner, how to handle a break up?

Host (1 Peter 4:8,9): As dating age approaches, plan gatherings for your child’s class—boys and girls—at your home. Encourage your son or daughter to have their boyfriend or girlfriend over for game nights, baking, movies, and devotions. We call this “family dating.” It’s a cheap date, but it’s also a way for the boyfriend/girlfriend to get to know you, the other siblings, the dog (a true test!), and the Christian values your family holds dear.

Dating. Ever since God said, “It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” in Genesis 2:18, men and women have been seeking the perfect partner. Welcome to this exciting/scary/exhilarating/wonderful phase of parenting! God’s blessings as you pray, teach, model, advise, and host your dating child of God, relying on God’s good guidance and timing.

Ann Ponath and her husband, David, have four kids ranging in age from 23 to 14.

Listening or compromising?

As a college professor, my “first day of class” activities are pretty standard. One of my favorite activities for a class primarily comprised of freshmen only takes a minute or two, but it generally produces huge benefits throughout the course of the semester. I have the students turn to someone in the class they don’t know and introduce themselves. It is such fun to walk around the classroom as my students are talking and see this first set of connections develop. I try to do this activity towards the end of the period so that the conversations begun in my class can naturally continue after the students walk out of the classroom door.

Parents, if your children are anything like my students, they will realize pretty quickly that some of the beliefs they’ve held their entire lives may not be shared by this new person they just met. How your children respond and what they do next could create a relationship that will last through four years of college—and beyond—or it could end the relationship before it even gets off the ground. It is crucial for college students to be able to discuss and understand a viewpoint that is different from their own, especially in the area of religion.

For many students, especially freshmen, this is an incredibly hard thing to do. As parents, from early on you’ve trained your children in the way they should go. You’ve taught them that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. You’ve modeled your faith for them in your words and actions. And now your children are in a situation where it can feel like they are being asked to give up or compromise their core Christian beliefs.

However, there is a difference between listening and compromising, and that’s what I’m encouraging you as parents to convey to your children. Refusing to listen or respectfully discuss other theological viewpoints isn’t necessarily an example of standing strong in one’s faith. Instead, it can often come off as insular, close-minded, and even unloving. It should certainly be the goal of all Christians to share their faith and spread the gospel. But in many instances, especially on a college campus, this can’t be done before a relationship is created and mutual respect is established.

Understanding when to speak, when to listen, when to agree, and when to disagree requires a certain amount of spiritual maturity. Like most positive character traits, this maturity doesn’t come overnight. It doesn’t always come easily. It takes practice and work. It especially takes practice and work when the other person in the conversation doesn’t have the same spiritual maturity. In these situations, encourage your children to remember that winning the argument in the short term might mean losing the opportunity to witness in the long term.

I love seeing new relationships develop among my students during their first semester in college. I love seeing them meet new people and step outside of their comfort zones. And I particularly love seeing friendships created among students from different religious backgrounds. It is such a joy to see spiritual matters being discussed and faith being shared both inside and outside the classroom. Parents, encourage your children to share their faith—but always with gentleness and respect.

Kristi Meyer is in her twelfth year of teaching mathematics at Wisconsin Lutheran College, Milwaukee, Wis. She is a member at St. John, Wauwatosa, Wis.