Dating. It's Not a Game.

By Sara Elsner

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“Mom, when can I start dating?”

Here we go. This question might be asked as soon as our children are able to articulate the words, or it may wait until the tween or teen years, but we need to be ready for it. And even if we are caught off guard by our kids’ desires to pursue the relationships of their next chapters of life, it is never too late to get ready for that question.

But being “ready” to talk to our kids about dating is not about having a pat answer or formula or age. It’s about having a relationship. Obviously. But I am referring to our relationship with our kids. How are we holding their hearts before they ask this question? How have we guided their heart to this question? Regardless of our parenting approaches to dating, non-dating, or courtship, or of our reasons behind any of those approaches, have we communicated and affirmed love, significance, honesty, and trust to our kids, so that they will trust our answers, or even trust us with that question?

“Rules without relationship leads to rebellion.” Charlie and I have often reminded ourselves of this quote by Josh McDowell in the book, How to be a Hero to Your Kids. Applying this wisdom in order to hold and guide our kids’ hearts into adulthood is modeled by the only perfect Father:

“He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” - Isaiah 40:11 NIV

The tendering of our kids’ hearts in relationship with them through the everyday, as well as contending for their hearts before our God who carries us all close to His heart, is essential to their trusting our answers to questions about relationships with others.

There isn’t a parent on earth who has done this perfectly, and we have made our own share of mistakes. And with five teens and young adults still living in our home, in addition to three married adult children, we have definitely had moments that our kids have challenged our parental approaches to many topics, including dating readiness. And we know we are not done.

These challenges test the mettle of the parent-child relationship. But they also build equity, often after persistent sessions (and whole seasons) of patient and loving, but prayerful and firm, enforcement of our guidelines, and affirmation of our sons’ and daughters’ great worth and wholeness that those guidelines lovingly aim to protect.

Even if “everybody else’s parents” have different approaches.

And wholeness is not just defined as physical safety or sexual purity. So our dating readiness discussions are not just about appropriate physical boundaries and timelines. Wholeness is also and especially about the heart - and about our kids learning to guard their own, rather than giving it to whomever is flattering them with attention at the moment. Of course they are going to desire pursuing and being pursued in romantic relationships. That is how God designed us and them. But as parents, it’s our job to help them determine their readiness for such a pursuit, for the sake of all involved.

Dating readiness is not a formula or an age.

Our family’s approach to guiding our kids’ hearts is often like paddling canoes upstream amidst the wakes of freely meandering sailboats, racing speed boats, and even of other carefully guided upstream paddlers. And we are still learning to navigate.

Our goal is to present our adult children to their future spouses with whole hearts at the source of a life-giving river, no matter how strenuous the upstream paddle may be.

There is no formula for this. But we have been transparent with our kids about how our own tween, teen, and therefore adult, years were affected by not having the following basic boundaries with which we are attempting to provide our kids:

-  Serious pursuit of romantic relationships is not supported until the season of responsible adulthood has begun.

-  Matchmaking jokes happen, but they are not encouraged to continue in conversations at home or with others outside our family.

-  Friendships in group settings are encouraged as opportunities to build healthy friendships with people of both genders.

-  One-on-one text conversations with opposite gender friends are discouraged, and we monitor the text conversations of our non-adult kids.

-  “Dating” situations are not supported by parents (our exceptions have been for special events like homecoming and prom) before the season of responsible adulthood has begun. This means a parent is not needed to drive a couple to the movies or to a dinner, or to pay for the expenses of such events, because the suitor (ie. our son who is the suitor of another’s daughter, or the young man who is our daughter’s suitor - we are old-fashioned that way) is old enough to drive and has a job.

- We participate in the vetting process of determining “responsible adulthood” for our own son(s)/daughter(s), AND for the young women/men with whom our adult kids desire to pursue a relationship, as well as the authenticity of that desire.

In guiding these conversations, my husband Charlie presents the following scenarios:

  • right guy/girl -- wrong time
  • right time -- wrong guy/girl
  • wrong guy/girl ANYTIME
  • right guy/girl -- right time!

In the process of raising our adult children, some things we have learned are:

-  Our kids are very sensitive to our words, regardless of how disagreeable they appear to be toward our boundaries at a given moment.

-  Sometimes our kids need us to be their scapegoat and say “no” for them, yet they have to appear unhappy about it to save face.

-  Sometimes they don’t - they need to learn to say no for themselves.

-  Although we must stand for what we know is best for them, we don’t want to be overbearing in our conversations - we want them to trust us with their vulnerability, and we also don’t want them to “cage” their hearts under the guise of applying the instruction to guard their hearts.

-  Most of the best and necessary conversations must happen at inconvenient and sleepy hours for us. Finally, we have learned that no matter how much we aim to protect our kids’ hearts, they may still get hurt or hurt others in the process of pursuing or discerning relationships. However, with our three married kids, we have seen God answer prayers that have been foundational for these guidelines, that have kept their hearts close to His, and that have indeed presented them to their spouses at the source of a life-giving river. And we are still paddling upstream with our in-house children. There are still moments of late and long patient conversational reinforcement of principles about why we can’t go with the flow. And then there are those great moments when they take the paddle and go against the currents on their own.


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A wife of thirty-ish years and homeschooling mom of eight, “plus-three”, Sara enjoys cooking for her remaining household of seven that grows to at least thirteen when their married kids are also seated at their family’s twenty foot table. As a math major, Sara battles symmetry-addiction, and she can’t avoid using both sides of her brain as she gardens and decorates. Check her out on Instagram and Facebook!