Have you noticed how easy it is to be opinionated about something that you don’t actually have to live out for yourself? I find that’s the case when it comes to the topic of dating and our daughters. Once upon a time, I was that young woman — a mentor of teens — baffled by a mama’s willingness to let her daughter date. And then, I became a mom of my own teen girls and, well, my opinion and perspective definitely shifted.
My staunch stance against dating in high school didn’t changed because God accomplished such a radical healing in my heart and enabled me to see that my position about dating was forged in hurt, shame, and regret.
See, my high school and early college years marked a season of unhealthy, abusive, and shame-filled relationships. When I came to accept Jesus as my Savior during my junior year, I swept all those wounds under the “forgiven for everything” banner and press onward. It wasn’t until after my marriage that I realized the severity of what I experienced, and it took nearly a decade, with godly counseling, to come to terms with my past and heal completely from the guilt and shame.
With that personal healing also came a beautiful new understanding of God’s design for purity — something that is about much more than not having sex before marriage.
Purity is about honoring God’s design for marriage and for the need for emotional and spiritual intimacy with a spouse. It’s also about filtering what goes into your heart and mind. It’s not that we have to lock ourselves up in a protected pad, but that we need to consider what gets access to our souls on a consistent basis.
With this new understanding about God’s design for whole-life purity, my position on dating took on a more grace-filled approach as well. Rather than focusing on rules to prevent getting hurt, I began to see the greatest risk isn’t a broken heart ! Rather it’s living in fear of getting hurt that can be a dangerous reality.
Fear of being wounded keeps us from learning how love well.
Fear traps us from trusting God.
Fear causes us to retreat from others when we ought to engage in a pure and purposeful way.
I was doing a better job instilling a value of fear in my own girls, and the ones I mentored, rather than conveying how to approach relationships with wisdom and whole-life purity.
Laying down that fear meant trusting God more. Trusting in provisions, protection, and redemptive grace for these girls as much as I had learned to depend on it for myself. With that change in my heart, I was able to shift away from black-and-white rules and towards inviting them to take ownership of their dating and relationship decision.
12 Questions to Help You Embrace the Dating Conversation with Your Teen
When my oldest approached middle school, I’d began to talk with her about what to look for in a guy, especially in a future husband and how to prepare herself for that time. I’d bring up Ephesians 5 — looking at the attributes of a godly husband and wife, and considered how that might manifest in a teen guy and what she might ought to focus on more purposefully in her own development. This was more of a practice time for giving her a way to discern who to marry in the future.
Sometimes the conversation about dating would come up if she would mention a particular guy, and other times we’d consider a hypothetical situation based on something a friend might be going through. We talked about dating “on our way,” much like how it’s described to teach the principles of Scripture in Deuteronomy 6. The goal was to get my daughter thinking long-term, base on her maturity level at the moment, as I asked her questions like these:
- What do you find attractive in a guy? His looks? The way he treats others? How smart he is? Whether he is athletic?
- What makes you cringe at a boy’s behavior?
- How would you want to spend time together if you were dating instead of just being friends?
- What would you do to balance your time between your friends and a boyfriend?
- What would be the advantages of having a boyfriend versus just staying friends?
- What would it be like after you broke up?
By the close of her ninth grade, the season of “dating” was becoming something of a reality for her peer group — which is late compared to some of the girls I’ve mentored. And so, my husband and I tossed a new expectation into the dialogue, which is what I call “our dating policy”:
“If a guy likes you, and you like him in return, and you think you want to date, we want you to invite him for dinner so that we can get to know him.”
We felt this approach communicated a deep message of love — one we would often articulate by saying:
“Girl, we love you so much, we want to know who we’re entrusting your heart to so that we can support and challenge you when the time comes.”
After 15 plus years of working with teenagers, we realized that dating isn’t about being a certain age or in a certain grade. Rather the “right time” depends upon a child’s personality, their willingness to be open to parental (and other adult) accountability, and whether they are in a place of maturity that’s necessary for ups and downs dating.
In the months that followed, our daughter took us up on our policy and brought home Mr. Yet-to-Be-Boyfriend. In the weeks to follow, he spent more and more time with us, and their longing to date increased as their friendship developed. We talked with our daughter often about what it would look like practically speaking:
- If you think long-term, is this boy you someone you could picture marrying? If not, how would dating him be beneficial?
- Is hand holding something that we’re all okay with?
- What about kissing? And cuddling?
- Is time alone something that will be allowed? And if so, where?
- What does it mean to stay in a “public” place?
- How will you balance time with other friends, family, and homework?
We insisted that they wait a few months to begin date — as they took time to develop their friendship and really think about whether being exclusive was necessary. About three months later, this kind young man did the honorable thing by asking for our permission for them to date. Both our daughter and Mr. Boyfriend knew they were accountable, and that proved to be a critical foundation on which to build their relationship as they often turned to us for support and guidance over the following months.
Of course, figuring out the expectations and boundaries wasn’t a neat and tidy process — it was often tearful, as our daughter felt the pressure from her peers and a longing to do what she felt was right.
As perfectly scripted as the beginning of their relationship was, both my daughter and Mr. Boyfriend ended up with crushed and broken-hearts. Actually, our whole family was brokenhearted because he became a part of our life as much as he became part of hers. You can imagine how my husband and I questioned whether we should have “let her date” in the first place — the pain was real, my friends. And yet, months have since passed, I can see God’s redemptive hand and purposes at work in both their lives.
My daughter discovered for herself that choosing to be in a relationship with someone isn’t just about good feelings that swirl around a heart aflutter with fresh attraction.
Being in a relationship requires a sacrifice of time and an emotional investment that is sometimes too great for one’s own age and stage.
She discovered for herself that a relationship will also increase the risk getting hurt, and hurting others, no matter how hard you try to avoid it. She also realized how much she needed to mature in her faith, and how challenging it is to navigate a relationship in high school.
Ultimately, she learned that love is indeed an action more than a feeling, and that human love is imperfect. Always.
Imperfect it was. And imperfect it will be in the future. Yet, in it all, there was lessons to be had and perspective to glean. I can’t even count the times when I said, “I’m so glad she’s going through this with us now, when she can process with us as the primary influence instead of her peer group!”
So, while I still might not be an advocate of teen dating, I’ve also come to see that “avoiding hurt” and minimizing risk shouldn’t necessarily be the goals for our teens. Rather, giving them a safe place to learn how to love others and be loved, while making discerning choices about how to navigate a relationship, isn’t so bad after-all.
Each child is different, so let’s be committed to parenting them fairly based on what they need and how God designed each of them.
I pray that as you consider what’s the right approach for your teen, you’ll seek the Lord and the counsel of the wise in your life who know you and your daughter well. May you be able to find the words to engage her heart and discover the path that God has for you both.
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