Back in my 1980’s adolescence, dating meant couple skating at the skating ring, passing notes back during class, and feeling embarrassed when my dad yelled through the house that the phone was for me.
My kids, however, experienced high school dating through texting, social media, and something I think they call “sliding into the DMs.” I’ve learned a few things after parenting three children through high school when it comes to navigating the topic of dating.
Avoid Hard and Fast Dating Rules
Kids grow up fast these days, gaining knowledge about the world through technology. Every child matures emotionally at his or her own pace. Hard and fast dating rules like I had felt like a misguided approach for our children. Rather than set a specific age for things like getting their own phone or having a first date, we’ve talked about stages and milestones that would demonstrate a readiness for such things. I firmly believe in parenting each child to their specific personality, while also parenting fairly. This requires flexibility and intentionality, and has, for the most part, served us well.
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Create a Dating Culture
My husband and I realized the need to establish a family dating philosophy when our kids were watching a kid’s show with a storyline about romantic drama involving elementary-aged children. Long before our kids were even interested in romance, we began to have conversations to create a dating culture and approach. Over family dinners, we casually painted a picture of what we envisioned to be appropriate high school dating. We looked for teaching moments as we talked about older cousins who were dating and the dramas from middle school “coupling up.” We asked questions of the kids, like their thoughts on how they might handle dating situations, while also giving them opportunities to practice responsibility and decision making.
Be Intentional, Open, Honest, and Consistent
Empirical data and research from various sources show that connection with your children is a key parenting technique that prevents teens from risky behavior and choices. Long before our children might be embarrassed by us, we emphasized memory making as a family and with each child. We had the complete “talk” with our kids around age 8 or 9, depending on the child. We answered questions as they came, while also initiating conversations and asking questions to continually keep the dialogue going when it came to healthy relationships and romances.
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Clearly Communicate Expectations
Asking and answering questions became the way we set the stage to explain our philosophy that exclusive and serious dating requires an emotional maturity that developmentally doesn’t usually come until the later high school years.
We communicated clearly that we felt “going out” was something that doesn’t happen until one or both parties can drive to actually go somewhere. We discussed the natural feelings of admiration for someone, handling this by choosing to sit together at lunch, or being part of group gatherings for birthdays or school events. We talked about the wisdom of staying in group settings — even through high school — to enjoy the rituals of homecoming, going to movies, and other typical teen activities.
We talked about this as a good approach emotionally and physically to make the memories and enjoy the things but not invest their heart at an age when they weren’t ready.
Be the Gathering Spot and Chauffeur
Our sons knew they were required to ask the father’s permission before asking a girl on a date in high school, and our daughter knew we expected a similar courtesy and show of respect. Knowing our children’s friends and hosting their friends regularly has always part of our family culture.
Before they could drive, our kids weren’t allowed to spend time at the house of people we hadn’t met. This could be remedied with a phone call or intentional meetings between parents. We often threw another plate on the dinner table, drove a van full of kids, and hosted friends at our house. Being connected with their social lives in general is a component to parenting high schoolers through dating.
Remain the Safety Net
Parenting with connection has allowed us to work through the rough spots more easily. Building a track record of involvement and interest has been the springboard to walk through the pitfalls of both dating and friendships. In the hard parts, we’ve tried to avoid harsh criticism, while either enforcing set consequences as necessary, allowing natural consequences, and coaching our kids how to handle things.
Dating is part of the high school years, but it doesn’t have to be something to dread. I’m here to say that it’s possible to create and enforce a family culture that reflects your beliefs and values, even when they don’t match up with others.