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Establishing Dating Guidelines for Your Teen

By Dennis and Barbara Rainey


In the fading twilight, the headlights of an approaching car reminded Bill to reach for the dashboard and turn on his lights. As the horde of rush-hour cars streamed by, Bill reminisced about the teenage daughter he had just picked up from band practice.

He smiled as he thought about all those after-school trips over the last few years: dance classes, piano practices, the unending cycle of softball games and tournaments. He glanced at her in the seat next to him and thought, She’s starting to look like her mom. Her childhood has passed so quickly.

Usually Bill and his daughter made small talk on their brief ride home. Not tonight. Bill was concerned about the growing emotional distance between them. Sure, he knew this gap was normal for teenagers and their parents. But he wasn’t ready yet to surrender his role as a parent. He hoped the conversation he was about to initiate would help close that gap. He had prayed for an opportunity to talk to her alone—without her three brothers around. This was it.

“Julie, how are you doing with the guys?” he asked, struggling to disguise the wobble he felt in his voice.

“Oh, okay,” Julie replied, in cryptic teenage fashion. She looked nonchalantly out her window as their car crossed a small bridge.

Bill smiled and probed: “You know, your mom and I have been talking about you and all those boys who call on the phone.”

Julie squirmed uncomfortably in her seat. Realizing now where this conversation was headed, she rolled her eyes.

“Your mom and I just want to make sure you know what you stand for as you get old enough to date. You know what I mean, Pudd’n?”

Pudd’n was Bill’s pet name for his daughter. He hoped it might soften her heart.

She smiled faintly.

“I would like to ask you a very personal question and give you the freedom not to answer if you don’t want to.” He paused, waiting for her reply.

“Sure, Dad. Why not?” she said flatly.

Bill gripped the steering wheel and shot a glance into her eyes. “Have you thought through how far you are going to go, physically, with the opposite sex?”

Whew. There—he’d done it! Bill and his wife had talked before with Julie about God’s standards about sex, but soon she would be dating and making moral choices on her own. They wanted to encourage her to make the right ones.

“Uh, well, I guess,” she replied. She was obviously feeling even more ill at ease.

They were just a block from home, so gently but firmly, Bill pressed the final question: “Well then, would you mind telling me how far you intend to go? Where are you going to draw your boundaries?”

He stopped the car a few feet short of the driveway and feigned a look into the mailbox. He knew his wife always got the mail, but Julie was acting like a basketball team ahead by one point in the fourth quarter, hoping the clock would run out. She was stalling.

Bill faced Julie and waited for her response. If he had waited for a month, he wouldn’t have been ready for what she said.

“No, I don’t want to tell you” she said firmly.

Decision time for this dad. He deliberated, What if I press the issue and she gets angry? Do I probe further now or double back later?

“Okay,” he replied, “I’ll take that for an answer . . . for now.”

A tense silence filled the car as it eased forward and stopped in the driveway.*

Bill is definitely a courageous dad, pressing into a relational hot spot where most parents fear to tread. Although it’s uncomfortable, he’s definitely on the right track.

Just what role should parents play to steer a child away from the traps in the most popular sport for many teens—the dating game?

Let’s begin by defining dating in broad terms.

For us, dating or courting is a small part of the overall process of determining God’s will for discovering your life partner in marriage. In our family the focus has not been on dating, but more on training our teens in their character and in how to develop a relationship with the opposite sex.

Our teens do not go out on a date every Friday and Saturday night. Our junior high and high school age teens don’t date anyone exclusively. Instead, we are encouraging our girls who are still home to focus on the friendship side of their relationships with boys. When our girls do spend time with a boy, it’s in a group, not one on one. We’re trying to train them to protect their emotions and not to send romantic signals to boys. And when a young man sends romantic signals to one of our daughters, we’ve talked with him and tried to keep the relationship on a friendship level.

When a child can date

Giving a child the privilege of spending time with a member of the opposite sex is a freedom that is based upon our judgment of how responsible we deem this child to be. Can we trust her to stick to her standards? Is he strong enough to withstand peer pressure in a boy-girl situation?

In light of our reformatted definition of dating, we have the following very general age guidelines for spending time with a friend of the opposite sex (these are for our children still living at home).

  • Doing things together with an approved mixed group of teens away from our home: We have allowed this to begin sometime after age 15.
  • Double dates or group dates: Usually at age 17, maybe earlier.
  • Single dates: These are generally discouraged but allowed in certain circumstances.

However, even with these guidelines, three out of four of our teens had their first real date to the school prom in their junior year at age 17. And those first dates were all with friends, not with someone with whom they were romantically involved. It’s not that our teens were not interested in dates beyond a friendship, but we had talked through the few pros and the many cons of exclusive dating enough that they felt changing the relationship from friendship to romance might ruin the friendship.

Our teenagers would all say that their prom dates were a lot of fun. They spent the whole evening in groups. Many of the parents were involved with before-dance dinners, chaperoning the dance, and hosting after-dance activities at homes or rented facilities. And it was a good opportunity for them to practice their manners and learn how to behave in formal clothes.

Our guidelines might sound repressive to some. A teenager going on a first date at 17 is certainly not the norm in our culture. But many experts agree that early dating is not a good idea.

It is easy to see why there is a movement of parents to replace traditional dating with a formal courtship between a young man and woman. These parents are involved in their children’s lives, seeking to protect their innocence and purity for marriage.

Whom they should date

As a starting point, we believe our teens should develop friendships with and eventually date only other Christians (2 Corinthians 6:14-16). Why go out with someone who does not have your values? Also, parents need to evaluate the vitality of the Christian walk of the person who may date one of their children. Specifically, is this young man or young woman a growing Christian?

In junior high, teens don’t have the discernment to know if a friend really is a Christian. They believe that if the child says he is a Christian, then he is. It takes far more maturity than most 12- to 16-year-olds have to see that words and actions need to match.

Train your teen to look for outward qualities that indicate inner character, like a good reputation at school, a self-controlled mouth, and wise driving habits, to name just a few. These external behaviors can be a reflection of good parental training. It takes time to discover those qualities about a person and even more time to see if they are enduring or just a pretense. Inner character can’t be seen at first sight, across a crowded room, when you say your first hello.

Teens need to be taught that the ultimate purpose of dating or courting is to find someone to marry. They need to be very choosy about whom they spend time with in light of that definition. Help them write down the qualities they want to look for in the person they marry. What values really matter? That list then becomes the criteria by which all potential dates are measured.

That’s why it’s so important for our teens to wait to date. Spiritual and emotional maturity can only come with time. It’s also why we want our teens to spend time with the opposite sex in groups. They can learn so much more about each other by observing behavior in a group, as opposed to getting to know someone in the perfectly preened, best behaved, tension-filled environment of a one-on-one date.

Specific boundaries need to be established. Even group dates can go awry if the group makes a poor choice on their plans. Since it would be difficult to list all the potential problems of a particular proposed date, the best policy is to maintain your right to approve any type of date while your teen is living at home. And be careful about making assumptions about Christian activities.

Telephone use

We believe moms and dads need to determine how their preteens and teens spend their time at home. Whom do you want to influence your child the most? After spending eight or more hours at school with friends and teachers, are you willing for her to spend one or two more hours on the phone every night with a boy friend or a girl friend? With homework, lessons, practices, and all, will you have any time with your teen to influence her?

Be wise about your child’s emotions. Even if your child is not dating, she can still become emotionally attached to a boy over the phone. We’ve seen it happen. Teens begin to share their feelings, their disappointments, their hopes, their troubles at home, and pretty soon they feel attached.

Even girl talk can create romantic longings as girls chat and dream and ooh and aah about boys. If they can’t date for several more years, why let them spend hours stirring their emotions and imaginations?

Internet communications

If your child spends time sending text messages to people, you need to monitor what’s going on. The subject line of a recent e-mail to one of our daughters was “Sexy Thang.” We knew whom it was from and, frankly, we didn’t like it. We decided I needed to write him to say it was improper for a young man to address a young lady as a “sexy thang.” And I asked him to keep the relationship on a friendship level. No gifts. No love letters. Just occasional communication.

We try to avoid saying to our teens, “Don’t do this, don’t do this, and for goodness sakes don’t do that!” Instead we constantly share what we’ve learned from Scripture, and we ask them challenging questions so that they learn to make good choices. We want them to conclude, “I don’t think I am going to do that.”

For the single parent

This is one subject in which you need to hammer out your own set of convictions—for you. That’s right! Decide how you are going to act when you have the opportunity to go out on a date. Then you will have the freedom to challenge your teen with a similar standard.

Remember, your child is a better student of you than you are of him or her. Your model will set the tone for your child’s dating relationships. The spiritual maturity of people you date, courtesies, and how you handle it all will speak volumes.

And if your preteen or teenager is the opposite sex from you, please seriously seek support from a mature adult friend of the same sex as your child.

*This story originally appeared in Dennis Rainey’s book, One Home at a Time (Colorado Springs: Focus on the Family, 1997), p. 121.

Adapted from Parenting Today’s Adolescent: Helping Your Child Avoid the Traps of the Preteen and Teen Years. Copyright 1998 by Dennis and Barbara Rainey. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson, Inc., Publishers.

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