By: Gregory Popcak
“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.