I don't mean to be an old grump, but the longer I live the more I find myself opposed to the idea of dating among teens. The thought has been growing in my mind over the years and I think I finally have enough life experience to speak to it. I was a teen who dated. And now I am the mother of teenagers who do not date, but who have many friends who do.
The irony is that I was technically married as a teenager at 19 years old. We met and started dating when I was 17 and became engaged when I was 18. The rest (17 years later with 7 children) is history. So I need to clarify what I mean when I say that I am opposed to teenagers dating...
I am opposed to teens exclusively dating before a marriageable age with a purpose other than marriage discernment.
The key to my opposition really lies in my objection to two immature people exclusively committing their bodies and souls to each other at a time when they are going through a major period of development in mental, physical, and spiritual self-awareness. If you have a child who is between the ages of 12 and 17, then you truly understand what I mean. For a young person of that age to be permitted to tinker with the affection and soul of another person so intimately is a very risky thing for both parties.
I was a dating teen. I believe I had a boyfriend almost constantly starting when my age hit the double digits. And I regret every bit of it. All. It's not that all of those boys were monsters (although a couple were mighty strange) but that I did not have the time and the freedom, physically and emotionally, to develop purpose and confidence outside of a relationship. I would gladly trade every single fun or memorable moment with my teenage boyfriends to have those years back as my own. Instead of giving me confidence, the teenage dating culture tore me down. Instead of contributing to maturity in relationships, it stunted my understanding of real commitment and love. Instead of helping me develop into the unique and beautiful soul that God intended me to be, I was stuck in a pattern of superficial people-pleasing.
When I began dating my husband, I was mired in patterns of unhealthy interpersonal behaviors learned from exclusively dating other immature teens. This relationship was different because he was older than I by several years, was mature even by age standards, and was deeply rooted in his Catholic faith and love of Jesus Christ. (No, I still have no idea why he was interested in me.) The result, however, was a period of intense personal growth and development. It was painful but it was a time of great grace. Once we were married, the graces of the sacrament blew the doors of freedom wide open.
I got married young and watched as my high school friends continued on the dating path into young adulthood. They continued the same unhealthy patterns (high school dating on steroids) while I felt that the hand of God had literally lifted me out of that cycle and into the lap of grace. Never for a moment have I envied that path of ongoing dating torment. Exclusive love given in the proper context is true freedom.
Now that I am the mother of a 15-year old, I hear every other week about another of his friends who is "in a relationship" with a young gal. My heart sinks when I hear it. I can't help it. I have a high opinion of my son's maturity level but I also know that his teenage brain is still very unformed. We have a great relationship but he still drives me nuts. He inches closer to driving age and I repeatedly think:
My word, what idiot decided that a 15-year old was even remotely mature enough to handle a vehicle in populated areas?
Poor judgement with a vehicle can inconvenience, injure, or kill people. Poor judgement in a relationship can cause wounds to the very soul. As much as I honor the good nature and maturity of my teenage son, I cannot responsibly allow him that freedom yet.
The good news for me as a parent is that we haven't had an issue with this so far. The boy has a very hearty appreciation for females but is also convicted that modern dating does not honor the purpose of Christian courtship... which is to prepare for marriage. I didn't teach him that. He read it in a book, took it to heart, and we've been having great discussions about it ever since. He also has an older teenage friend who shares this worldview and they have discussed it at length.
What he has been observing in his other dating friends is that they suddenly have even less time in their busy schedules for male fellowship and faith-centered activities. He has noticed that they don't serve at the altar as much because they'd rather sit with their girlfriends, that they're letting their fingernails get painted pink, and that their Facebook covers now have two heads instead of one. In short, the relationships they're in have significantly changed their habits and life focus... and from an outside perspective, I don't think he sees the change as entirely positive.
We have been talking to our older kids more about the topic as more friends become attached. We ask each other questions:
-What is the purpose of Christian dating?
-If marriage is the purpose of exclusive dating, then how does dating benefit a young teen?
-Can a teenager grow to know and love another person without exclusively dating?
-What is the best environment for developing a Christ-centered relationship?
-How can exclusive dating affect (positively or negatively) discernment of one's lifework and vocation?
-What are the benefits/risks of dating before a marriageable age?
-Is it necessary to practice being in an exclusive relationship in order to love a spouse well?
The discussions have been excellent.
I think it is important to point out that our position as homeschoolers is a great advantage here. The kids are not primarily surrounded by a secular youth culture that lives and dies on whether someone has a boyfriend or girlfriend. We are family and faith community-centered and the opportunity for one of the kids to spend enough alone time with another young teen in order to ask them "out" is limited.
I love the story of Scott and Kim Hahn's courtship (found in
). Basically, they spent almost the entirety of that time as good friends in the context of group ministry. They put Christ first and worked side by side in service, only having a handful of actual "dates" before they decided to commit their lives to each other. Their testimony is powerful because it demonstrates that the greatest marriages are rooted in great friendship. The greatest friendships are rooted in love and service to Christ. And it is not necessary to date young or according to modern trends to build that kind of rock solid foundation.
I strongly disagree with the idea that the pattern of entering repeatedly into exclusive relationships and then breaking up is healthy for teens. When we prepare for marriage, we are preparing for a lifelong commitment. If a dating couple does not have marriage discernment as the specific and spoken end goal of their relationship, then what is their goal? Fun? Distraction? Confidence building? Pride? Does that really honor the dignity of the object of affection?
During a particularly good talk we had on the subject, Professor did some thinking aloud...
"By dating a 16-year old girl, I would basically be saying that I expected all of her extra time and attention. I would be asking her to stop considering other options- other guys or other vocational paths- so that she could just focus on me. And if I wasn't ready to give her an engagement ring, then that would be kind of a bad thing to do. The best way to love her would be to let her have the freedom to discover God's plans for her life. Then if we still liked each other a couple years later... well, that might be a different story."
My 13-year old daughter involves another discussion altogether but simpler in some ways. For example, instead of long, protracted discussions of this kind, we reduce it to terms that leave no room for confusion:
Your burka is coming in the mail today. Don't talk to boys. Ever. As soon as you graduate, you'll be taking the veil.
Just kidding. The beauty of Christian life is not being holed up in restrictive darkness, but in the blazing glory of the freedom of authentic love. The entire purpose of my parenthood is to pass the key to that freedom and joy on to my kids. May the good Lord guide our every step towards His most Sacred Heart!