People have sometimes said to me, “Chris, you have two daughters. Aren’t you scared to death of when they start dating?“
I like to reply with an answer that really throws them for a spin: “Actually, I can’t WAIT for when my child dates!” (I usually either get a look like I have three heads or just a headshake-of-pity as they slowly turn and walk away with a “tsk-tsk…”).
“Why can’t you wait?” you may ask. I know when my daughters begin to date, they’ll be entering a new phase in their social and emotional development, a period in their lives that will have life-transforming experiences. What they do in their early dating lives is going to shape who they marry, if they choose that route. And that’s exciting to me. (Not to mention, I’m chomping at the bit for that first you-can’t-go-on-a-date-with-my-daughter-until-I-interrogate-you meeting. I like to call it the “First Date Inquisition.”)
Now, despite my gusto for dating, even I know there’s a healthy point for this phase to happen. Typically, when children and teens go through different stages of development, what happens in one stage plays a major role in how well they’ll get through the next. So, I want my daughters to enter into the dating stage of their lives as fully equipped and prepared as possible.
So when should I let my child date?
That’s a hard question to answer. But, given all that I just shared, I can tell you when I won’t let my kids date.
When they can’t yet articulate to me a good purpose for dating.
Let’s be honest—when my daughter walks out of the house to meet someone for a date, the first thing on her mind probably isn’t, okay, I’m doing this because… She just wants to have fun, talk to someone who is as interested in her as she is in them. However, before that day comes, I do want her to have in her head why, overall, she wants to date. Because at the end of the day, there are good reasons and bad reasons to date. I don’t know that there’s a single right answer for all families to the question, “What’s the purpose for dating?” Parents and teens need to talk together to determine some positive purposes, with parents being the voices of wisdom.
In our house, we talk about how dating:
- Prepares you to know better the kind of person you want to marry (if that’s something in the cards).
- Is something that helps a young person grow into the person they are.
- Develops healthy social skills that are beyond friendship relationships.
When they cannot yet grasp that their value doesn’t come from whether or who they date.
I want my girls to know that a romantic partner does not make them more of a person. They aren’t somehow “not enough” without a boyfriend. And that, despite what other people their age might be doing or saying, dating isn’t something you need to do because it helps you feel more accepted in your friend group. In other words, I want them to develop self-confidence and the beginnings of a firm identity beyond their dating life.
When a teen knows this, it can protect them from adolescent dating risks. Research tells us that teens who have a healthy amount of self-efficacy, or self-assurance, are less likely to experience dating violence, use drugs or alcohol on dates, or cave into sexual pressures.
If they don’t feel like they can communicate with me or their mom if something is wrong.
I’m just going to lay it out there for you: as much as it may pain you, when your kids begin dating, they will experience heartbreak, pressures, and temptation. They are going through the mental and emotional gymnastics of development. And they are going to come to points, many times, when they are stuck and need a voice of wisdom. That’s you. I want my daughters to know they can call me if they are at a place they don’t want to be and I’ll be there to get them. And I want them to feel comfortable to open up about what they are feeling or experiencing in a dating relationship. Despite popular belief, this is very possible.
If they are dealing with depression or anxiety.
The bad news is that, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, 30% of adolescents experience some kind of anxiety, and Pew research tells us that 13% of adolescents in 2017 experienced at least one major depressive episode. The good news is, the vast majority of these issues in teens are very treatable. If my daughters experience any kind of depression or anxiety, I’m confident we can work through it over time. However, I don’t want a boyfriend or an active dating life to be the coping mechanism they use to deal with these things. Bad things happen when the “other person” is made the emotional crutch.
When they can’t separate their dating life from their compassion for others.
What I mean here is sort of the reverse of the previous bullet point. Both of my daughters are very compassionate people; they’d gladly give everything they have to help someone who’s down and out. However, we’ve all seen relationships where one person stays because they feel the need to help the other deal with some issue. And this brings the fear that if you were to break it off, the other person might go off the deep end somehow. This is “martyr dating,” and it’s not healthy. I want my daughters to understand that dating is not the avenue to walk people through their problems.
A couple of caveats need to be made with the above points:
- Now, if I were to wait until my kids had all these things down in their development to let them date, well, they may be living in my house a verrrrrrry long time. Obviously, they won’t have it all together in their teen years. But the idea is to know my kids well enough to know that they are well on the road toward these developmental traits.
- These developmental lessons begin well before teens are anywhere close to dating age. As a matter of fact, they begin with a close, connected relationship between parent and child. Parents need to be in the pocket, having ongoing conversations on these ideas with their kids. This is how children build self-confidence and trust to go to their parents with problems, even when they are older. Ongoing conversations help teens cope with anxiety and other emotional issues. And it helps them come to a good understanding as to the purpose of dating.
There is no magic age a child should be allowed to date. It really depends on the child and where they are in their thinking and development. But one thing is for certain: parents need to become a student of their kids, continually learning more and more about how they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, and getting a sense of the direction of their development. This is the best way that we as parents can prepare our kids for a healthy dating life.
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