When Is My Teen Ready to Date?

By: Gregory Popcak

 

asain couple dating

“Dad, when will I be old enough to date?”

“Not ‘til you’re 40.”

It’s a common enough sit-com exchange, if only it were that easy.   Kids want real answers to their questions about their readiness for dating relationships and parents often feel at a loss for how to guide them.   This is especially true if the parents’ own dating history was unhealthy or  unchaste.  Of course there is a wide variety of opinion among parents about when children can date, or even–for those parents who advocate courtship–whether children should date at all. But regardless of where individual parents’ opinion falls on this topic, there are a few things that parents should keep in mind for evaluating whether you are adequately preparing your young person to have healthy, chaste, adult relationships.

1.   What do they stand for?

In the document, The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, the Pontifical Council on the Family (the official group within the Church, instituted in the early 80’s, which desires to respond to the expectations of Christians everywhere regarding the family and all issues that pertain to it) reminds parents that sex and relationship education isn’t just about teaching mechanics, it’s primarily about conveying values and character.   Preparing teens for the world of healthy romantic relationships has to begin with helping teens own their own values and beliefs–the building blocks of identity.     Healthy relationships inspire a young person to be stronger in their values and beliefs, while unhealthy relationships cause a young person to feel awkward or ashamed of their values and beliefs.   The more the youth owns his or her values (as opposed to simply parroting what mom and dad say) has the best chance of evaluating what relationships are good for them and which are not.

There are two things that a parent can do to foster this sense in teens.   First, parents need to make sure that the teen is getting individual prayer time as well as participating actively in any family prayer.   It is impossible for a child to learn how to become a godly adult unless he or she is spending time alone with God allowing his or her heart to be instructed by God.   Secondly, it can be useful to help the teen develop his or her own mission statement that enumerates the core virtues and beliefs by which he or she wants to live.   Then, in helping the teen evaluate choices in general and relationship choices in particular, the parent can ask the teen, “How does that possible choice affect your desire to be a (responsible, faithful, loving, generous, etc) person?”   This gives the young person active training on how to use Christian virtue as a tool for discerning appropriate choices.   Research has shown that young people who have a strong personal prayerlife and a strong internalized value system are much more successful at remaining chaste and having healthy adult relationships.   For more tips on developing your teens spiritual life and sense of mission, my book, Parenting with Grace:   A Catholic Parent Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids is a helpful resource.

2.   Can they be friends?

Whether your child is 15 or 50, your teen is not ready to date if he or she does not know how to first be a friend to a member of the opposite sex.   While boys and girls are different, the idea that young men and women are entirely different species (say, Martians and Venusians) whose ability to get along extends only as far as their potential to make each other weak in the knees is simply false.   The more young men and women are given the opportunity to socialize with each other in platonic groups and form healthy friendships with the opposite sex–with the respectful supervision of faithful adults–the more they realize that their differences can be strengths for partnership, not obstacles to understanding.   If your son or daughter doesn’t know how to be a friend to the member of the opposite sex, he or she isn’t ready to date a member of the opposite sex.   Why?   Because dating is not supposed to be a testament to the fact that two people have the hots for each other.   It’s supposed to be a testament to the fact that a young man and woman have achieved a friendship that is truly unique.

3.   Are they well-rounded?

Beginning in late elementary school and certainly by middle school, your children should have identified certain interests and hobbies that give them joy and in which they are happy to invest regular time and energy. In high school, friendships should revolve primarily around those activities and interests as opposed to just hanging out.   Teens who do not have interests and activities to which they are committed are at significantly higher risk for seeking their identity in destructive, sexual relationships.   Teens who have interests and commitments and goals tend to have too much going for them to want to jeopardize it with foolish relationship choices.  Likewise, teens who have strong interests tend to have more experience balancing school, activities, and friendships which enables them to avoid the trap of getting so absorbed in a budding romance that they shut out everything else.   The more compelling a teen’s life is, the less they will be tempted to seek all their excitement in the arms of some crush.

4. Are they connected to you?

Even if you are doing all of the above, your teen will still need some one-on-one guidance.   Despite what they may tell you and what you might think, teens need you just  as much as they did when they were little.   Make sure you make one-on-one time to work, play, and build relationship with your teen.   Adolescents do terribly with serious “let’s talk” time, but questions, concerns, and reflections are more likely to be shared by a reluctant teen when mom and dad are willing to put in the time and do things with their son or daughter.   Your ability to guide your young adult is directly proportionate to the strength of your relationship with your child.   Build the rapport, and your influence will increase.

For more suggestions to help your child–regardless of his or her age–discover the Catholic vision of love, check out my book, Beyond the Birds and the Bees.   The teen years don’t have to cause you to quake if you have the tools to build a solid foundation for your kid’s future relationships.

Raising Moral Kids: The Surprising Secret that Trains Your Child's Moral Brain

By: PaxCare Staff

father and daughter

This article is adapted from the new, revised, and expanded edition of  Beyond the Birds and the Bees: Raising Sexually Whole and Holy Kids  by Dr. Gregory Popcak and his wife Lisa Popcak.

 

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”

 

-St Paul.  (Romans 7:15)

How do we raise kids who will choose the right thing to do, even when we’re not breathing down their necks?   How do we help our kids avoid–as much as possible–the problem of knowing the right thing to do but still being unable to do it in the moment?  This is one of the greatest challenges facing the faithful parent.   And while there are, of course, no guarantees, the good news is that with new information from both science and the Theology of the Body (the late John Paul II’s vision of the person-which specifically explores how the human body reveals the answers to many of the fundamental questions of life), it is easier than ever for parents to know what they need to do to help their kids make good moral choices even when mom and dad aren’t looking and the pressure is on.

Making Moral Choices:   How Do We Do It?

The Theology of the Body tells us that by prayerfully contemplating God’s design of our body, we can learn some important things about our origin, our destiny, and how we are called to relate to others while we’re here.   The more we cooperate with God’s design of the body, the easier it should be to become what we were created to be.   So, as a starting point in our discussion of raising moral kids, let’s talk about how the brain makes moral decisions. You’ve probably noticed that in order to “do the right thing” under pressure and when no one’s looking, it isn’t enough to have good information about what constitutes right and wrong.   That’s because the brain stores information in the cortex, but it produces the impulse to act under pressure in the limbic system, which is in a whole other neighborhood as far as your neurology is concerned.   Even though the cortex is the library where all our really sophisticated resources are stored, the limbic system gets information from the outside world before any other part of the brain because it’s job is to produce impulses (for instance, the fight, flight, or freeze response) that keep me out of danger.   Many of the things the limbic system might want to do when left to its own devices (e.g., tantrum, punch, ignore the problem, go along with the crowd, act paralyzed and fail to say/do what I should) end up producing morally questionable behaviors at best.  By contrast, the cortex’s job is to review what the limbic system wants to do and either rubber stamp it (“Yup!   Look’s good to me!”) or insist that the limbic system do something else and provide the explicit directions for how to do that alternative thing.

In order to make moral choices when the pressure is on and no one is watching, my limbic system needs to be able to have a rapid “conversation” with my cortex about what’s going on, what my impulses are telling me to do, how to reconcile that against what I believe is the right thing to do, and how to make a plan to follow through.   This all has to happen in less than a split second.   If this rapid communication doesn’t occur between the cortex and limbic system then one of two things happen.   First, the cortex may never get to weigh in on the situation at all.  In that case,  I simply do what my limbic system tells me and I honestly can’t consciously describe why I’m doing it  (Parent: “Why did you do THAT!”   Child:   “I don’t KNOW!…”).     The other possibility is that the cortex gets the information, but relays its alternative response back to the limbic system too late, leading to those situations where we find ourselves doing the wrong thing, but feel powerless to do anything about it except criticize ourselves afterward for screwing things up yet again.   No matter how good my moral training has been, no matter how much information I have stored in my cortex, if my cortex and limbic system aren’t capable of having that rapid fire moral dialog, my ability to do the right thing–especially under pressure and when no one is watching–will be seriously compromised.

Donkey Trails vs. Superhighways

So what makes this moral conversation possible?   Neurons act like roads connecting different regions of the brain.   Some of those “roads” are more like donkey trails and some are superhighways. Obviously, because you need to make moral decisions so rapidly, you want a superhighway connecting the various parts of your moral brain.   That’s where mom and dad come in. Science reveals that the single most important thing parents can do to build the superhighway connecting the different parts of your child’s moral brain is give the child EXTRAVAGANT affection.

Affection Trains the Moral Brain

The Theology of the Body tells us that we were made for love and that even our bodies are wired for love.   Neuroscience is showing us how true that really is.   A study that followed 500 children from birth to mid-life found that the levels of affection these children received by 8mos of age predicted the level of development of what I am calling the ‘moral brain’ in adulthood.   When the children (now 30+ yo adults) were divided up according to the levels of affection they received in infancy/toddlerhood (e.g., neglected, normal, extravagant), only the 7% of children who received extravagant levels of affection (as opposed to 85% who received “normal” and the 6% who received “neglectful” levels of affection) demonstrated the greatest degree of those skills associated with good moral decision making.   Another study involving 100 children found that the kids who received the highest levels of affection at home developed much larger hippocampi, the parts of the brain responsible for emotional control and stress regulation, two other skills that have been directly associated with moral decision making.  The bottom line is that if parents want moral kids, we need to do much more than sheltering kids’ innocence and telling them the difference between right from wrong.   Parents need to prepare their children’s brains for the work of moral decision making by rooting them in extravagant physical affection and generous displays of parental love.

Did you find this information interesting? Want to learn more about Theology of the Body and how to raise children who will grow to be the best version of themselves with your help? Be sure to pick up a copy of  Beyond the Birds and the Bees: Raising Sexually Whole and Holy Kids  for yourself. You’ll be happy you did!

Communicating the Catholic Vision of Love to Your Kids.

Dr. Gregory Popcak

birds and the bees

The following has been excerpted from the new, revised and expanded edition of Beyond the Birds and the Bees: Raising Sexually Whole and Holy Kids.

As Catholic parents, talking to our kids about sexuality is a tough job, but it’s our privilege to do it.  In both The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality and in Pope John Paul   II’s writings on family life, it’s pretty clear that the very point of parenting is forming our children’s capacity for love.   Of course, a huge part of that formation has to include teaching our children how to express the donative meaning of the body (i.e., that our body was given to us by God to work for the good of others) and live the gift of embodied love which, in marriage, includes sex.  

The Catholic Vision of Love: Not Second Best

The most important thing to keep in mind when thinking and talking about Catholic sexuality is that it offers a very different–and ultimately superior–vision to every other approach to sexuality on the planet. When we are preparing to talk to our children about sex, it is not enough to try to explain why Christians think differently about sexuality. Such approaches end up inadvertently sounding as if the secular approaches to sex are infinitely more rewarding, except that Christians are more “disciplined” about their sexuality. Rather, the Christian view is that the secular approach doesn’t even express true sexuality, which is often merely self-serving sensuality masquerading as “sexuality.”

Catholic Sexuality:   The One. The Original. The Real Thing.

The true Christian version of sexuality is what God intended when He gave us our sexuality in the first place. It is infinitely more real, more beautiful, and more satisfying than the shabby imitations the world attempts to foist on us.  Let’s take a closer look at this point. Imagine that you wanted to put some flowers outside your house. You have two options available: artificial (plastic or even silk) or real flowers.  At first thought, you might be leaning toward the plastic variety because of all the benefits artificial flowers give. You would get instant gratification by being able to see what your garden will look like. You wouldn’t have to water or fertilize, animals wouldn’t eat your flora, and you would never have to trim or transplant them.

While artificial flowers might look good at first–from a distance–they look pretty tacky on closer examination, especially sticking up out of the dirt, where they look downright ridiculous. Furthermore, artificial plants get dirty when it rains and will fade in the sun, and they don’t grow back when you accidentally hack them up with the weed-whacker. Last but not least, even the most expertly made artificial flowers don’t smell like anything.  So you begin to consider the second option: real flowers. Yes, there is more work involved. You have to water and fertilize, keep out rodents, and trim and occasionally transplant. But these flowers do not fade with time; in fact, they become more beautiful.   Sure, older blooms may wilt, but with some simple maintenance, new buds are constantly sprouting. Even over time, real flowers bear up under close scrutiny. Unlike the tacky plastic flowers, real flowers actually become more delightful when you look at them carefully. They are constantly changing, growing, and becoming more alluring, continually bursting forth with new life and new color. Likewise, few things are more wonderful than smelling the delicious fragrance of lavender, roses, freesia, lemon grass, and hundreds of other kinds of real flowers.

How Does YOUR Garden Grow?

In the same way, what passes for “sexuality” in our culture is merely a shabby, tacky imitation of what sex really is. They don’t have the real thing; we do. Honestly, most of secular society can’t handle the truth, so they try to come up with a cheap, “plastic-covered” approximation of what sex is supposed to be. Then they offer it to the rest of the world as the best kind of sexuality, just like the fake flowers in our analogy.  On closer examination, though, this view of sex doesn’t hold up. It isn’t vital, because it is openly hostile to new life. Rather than flowing from a deep spiritual friendship between two people, it seeks to replace and subvert that friendship. It doesn’t improve with time (in fact, it fades), because no real intimacy can exist in the absence of a spiritual friendship. Without intimacy, lovemaking of any kind becomes, over time, boring and less interesting.   It doesn’t stand up to conflict and stress (the weed-whacker in the analogy) because, in the secular version of sexuality, there isn’t supposed to be conflict and stress, only blissful ecstasy. At the first signs of trouble, then, the passion dies, and the couple breaks apart.

What Catholic Sexuality Offers

  • It offers spouses the chance to love and be loved (rather than use and be used) in the way we yearn for the most.
  • It offers a couple the freedom to be playful and joyful in a way that is never demeaning or degrading.
  • It allows a married couple to experience their lovemaking both as a physical sign of the passion God has for the couple and as a foreshadowing of the divine ecstasy that awaits us in heaven.
  • It allows a couple to communicate their whole physical, emotional, spiritual, and relational selves to one another every time they make love.
  • It invites the couple to renew their wedding vows with the “language of their bodies”–and celebrate their sacrament–every time they make love.
  • It offers protection from disease and heartbreak.
  • It encourages the couple to celebrate a love so powerful, so profound, that, in many cases, that (to quote Scott Hahn) “love has to be given its own name in nine months.”
  • It encourages a couple prayerfully to consider God’s plan for their lives every month, asking whether God is calling them to expand their “community of love” by being open to adding another life to the family.
  • It challenges a couple’s capacity for vulnerability and helps them overcome the basic shame that all humanity experienced after the Fall. It plays a part in preparing them to stand, completely exposed, before our Divine Lover when they arrive for the eternal wedding feast with God–heaven.

In short, the comparison between Catholic sexuality and the eroticism served up by secular society is like comparing real flowers to fake ones. There is no comparison. The reality is that the kind of sexuality espoused by the Church and especially illustrated in the Theology of the Body beats every secular alternative. It represents the fullness of sexuality as created by God, and as such it is absolutely good. It is far better than anything the world has to offer.  I understand how parents might feel tentative, nervous, or a little intimidated at that thought of discussing sex with their kids, but there is one thing no Catholic parent ever has to feel and that is ashamed.   The Catholic vision of love is the real thing.   Love your kids enough to give them the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth.

If you enjoyed what you read here, we highly recommend you pick up a copy of  Beyond the Birds and the Bees: Raising Sexually Whole and Holy Kids  for yourself. If you find yourself struggling or questioning anything you read here, call your PaxCare Tele-Coach today and get the answers you are seeking as well as the skills you need to succeed.