Pretend with me for a minute that you are no longer the parent, but instead, the teenager. Think hard. How does it feel to be that vulnerable dating age again? Scary? What was it that gave you confidence then? Or what made you feel inadequate? Maybe your parents did a good job of helping you through those years—or maybe not. What did they do that worked and didn’t work?
Carefully examining our memories can be a valuable step in guiding our own children through their crucial dating years.
Church leaders have counseled youth: “Begin to prepare now for a temple marriage. Proper dating is part of that preparation.” (For the Strength of Youth, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1990, p. 7.) And the First Presidency of the Church, in a letter dated 14 November 1991, reminded Church members that parents are responsible to teach their children “to be chaste in thought and deed.” But young people cannot learn about proper dating completely on their own. As parents, we have a responsibility to help them.
So what works?
I recently interviewed parents of children who have successfully bridged the gap between teen years and temple. Following are some of their suggestions.
Family rules are important, but having too many rules can backfire. “My own father was too strict, absolutely inflexible, with a rule for everything. I remember having a rebellious attitude toward him,” said one father of grown children. Consequently, this man and his wife set only a few firm rules regarding dating—“family principles” that were continually taught in a loving, open-discussion manner at family home evenings.
A stake president in Las Vegas, Nevada, father of six faithful married children, said he and his wife set down only a few rules, then stuck to them. “Absolutely no dating until age sixteen” was one of them. He explained: “I saw through my Church experience that immorality is more apt to occur when dating begins before age sixteen.” Hold to the rule even if young people push it, he advised.
This is in harmony with counsel from Church leaders: “In cultures where dating is appropriate, do not date until you are sixteen years old.” Parents should also remember that “not all teenagers need to date or even want to. Many young people do not date during their teen years, because they are not interested, do not have opportunities, or simply want to delay forming serious relationships.” (For the Strength of Youth, p. 7.)
Successful parents commonly insist on knowing when their children will be home from a date. Some set a reasonable curfew; others negotiate the time depending on the event. Setting this limit firmly but lovingly can be a way of showing young people you care. Once when our son was complaining to a girlfriend about having to be home by a certain hour, she commented, “You’re lucky. I wish my parents loved me that much. They don’t even care when I come in.”
Many young people appreciate knowing that at least one parent will be waiting up for them. A single mother said, “I always waited up for my daughter and enjoyed hearing all about the date. It gave her a chance to share her joys and concerns with me.”
Many parents said their young people are not allowed to go to other homes to watch late-night videos after a date because this could lead to a compromising situation when defenses are low. One mother said, “I tell my kids I trust them, but I don’t trust Satan.” After the main event and a reasonable time to go for ice cream or pizza, the date is over and the young people are to be home. Peter knew what he was talking about when he said, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.” (1 Pet. 5:8.)
What if they come home late? Keep your cool and allow them to talk; there may be a very good reason. Then restate the rule, hug them, and say, “I’m glad you’re home.” One effective counselor stated, “Don’t punish. Instead, effectively follow through.” (Gregory Bodenhamer, Back in Control: How to Get Your Children to Behave, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1983, p. 39.) If your children are late again, kindly restate the rule and apply the previously discussed consequences. Your children will know you mean what you say.
Many young men and women go into dating with no preparation. We cannot assume that they know what to do. In our family, my husband took each of our daughters on a few “dates” before age sixteen to help them learn etiquette. He began by knocking on the door, allowing our daughter to invite him in and practice introducing him to me. He taught her how to feel comfortable ordering from a menu while being conscious of the price, how to hand her coat to a young man and give him the opportunity to help her put it on, and how to allow him to be a gentleman in other ways. (Watching the kind, respectful little things parents do for each other is likely the best teacher here.) I took our sons out for similar experiences. All of us had a great time, and our children were more prepared when real dates came along.
But learning date etiquette is not enough preparation. One bishop of a college-age ward commented: “Parents need to be specific in helping their teenagers know what’s appropriate affection on a date.” He said many fine young people he knew who had morally transgressed had not recognized the steps leading up to it. Parents need to help young people know the difference between an appropriate kiss and hug and inappropriate behavior. They also need to know how to immediately get out of compromising situations.
Parents can help their children understand that there is safety and fun in double dating and group dating. Two young men in our ward found this out when they invited a few girls and boys over for a “bake-out.” They made dozens of cookies, eating some of the dough out of the bowl and lots of cookies hot from the oven. The rest of the cookies they took to elderly women in the ward.
President Ezra Taft Benson has advised young women: “Avoid steady dating with a young man prior to the time of his mission call.” (Ensign, Nov. 1986, p. 82.) Despite this counsel, some young people will date steadily. One mother recalled that she and her husband were able to control, to some extent, how often their daughter and her boyfriend were together. “And when they did date, we had them spend much of their time in our home, making sure one of us was there, wandering through the room occasionally.”
Being there is important. One evening my husband and I anticipated that our son and his girlfriend might arrive home a short time before we did, so we made a big sign that simply said, “Smile, you’re on heaven’s candid camera.” Having fun can take the edge off parental supervision.
Several parents said, “We keep the refrigerator full and the front door open. We want our kids to hang out with their friends at our house.” One father added, “We make their friends feel welcome and comfortable in our home. We know their names and talk to them like adults. They like that.” Some parents include friends in family home evenings. “It’s a good way for them to learn our family values,” one parent explained. This approach can help our own children follow the First Presidency’s admonition to “date only those who have high standards, who respect your standards, and in whose company you can maintain the standards of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” (For the Strength of Youth, p. 7.)
Some parents make it clear that their daughters’ dates will need to come in to meet father or mother; there’s no honking followed by a dash out the door. Since boys are generally the ones to pick up the girls, it’s not so simple to meet a son’s date. Some parents encourage a son to bring the young woman, and maybe some friends, home for treats after a date; this is a tempting money-saver for the son. One parent said, “Our sons often invite girlfriends home for Sunday dinner, allowing us to get to know them better.”
A mother in Illinois noted: “Church-sponsored events and early-morning seminary have really pulled our Latter-day Saint youth together, giving them an automatic pool of good friends.” Because there are so few LDS young people in the area, they have found great strength and friendship in going to activities together. “They don’t really pair off and date much, but they do have a lot of fun running around together as a group, ending up at our house much of the time.”
One young mother in California said, “The most important thing my parents did to help me through those dating years started when I was a little girl.” They helped her develop a sense of self-worth. “Because of that feeling, I knew I was worth dating only guys with high standards, and I kept myself worthy to go to the temple.”
Helping a child gain a sense of self-worth isn’t always easy, though. I asked this woman’s parents what they did to help their children in this area. “We gave our children the opportunity to make as many of their own choices as possible,” her father said. “This builds self-esteem and confidence in their ability to trust their own decisions. That’s a great defense against peer pressure and, believe me, they get plenty of peer pressure during the dating years.”
Her mother added that as parents, they “helped the children develop at least one talent with a fair amount of confidence by the time they were twelve years old.” For their daughters, it was playing the piano; for a son, it was art.
You may say, “Great! I’ve failed. I haven’t helped my child develop a talent.” Wrong! It’s never too late to help our young people discover and perfect their talents. Everyone can become good at something. In our family, even our mentally handicapped daughter learned to play one song with one chord on the ukulele. She was happy and felt good about herself.
Helping our children realize who they are can strengthen them in making proper decisions during the dating years. Elder Boyd K. Packer has said that we must teach them, “You are a child of God. He is the father of your spirit. Spiritually you are of noble birth, the offspring of the King of Heaven. Fix that truth in your mind and hold to it.” (Ensign, May 1989, p. 54.) We, too, need to remember who they are and treat them with the respect we owe to children of God.
One psychologist said, “If you … ignore trendy ideas about ‘parenting’ and rely instead on your common sense, you’ll have the best possible chance of rearing happy, healthy children.” (John K. Rosemond, “How to Raise Happy Kids,” Readers Digest, Dec. 1990, p. 148.)
Along with common sense, Latter-day Saint parents have another, more valuable source of help. We have also been given the gift of the Holy Ghost to guide us. We need to pay attention to both of these God-given aids and to recognize that we can help our children through their dating years if we seek the Lord’s guidance. An aunt taught me long ago about the value of prayer in this matter. “Many times I have gone to the Lord and asked to know what to do regarding a situation with our teenagers,” she said. “And I let them know I was praying. Young people respect a parent seeking answers from on high.” If they know you regularly and humbly seek the Lord’s help in their behalf, they will recognize the truth of counsel you receive through the Holy Ghost. They, too, can receive his direction, and we should help them learn this.
Many of our youth may already have available to them another valuable source of personal guidance that was given by the Spirit. When I was a teenager, I remember gaining strength from reading my patriarchal blessing. I encouraged our children to do the same. The promises and warnings given in patriarchal blessings can help youth keep an eternal perspective.
One father said, “I guess the best preparation we gave our children, as I look back, was a love for the gospel of Jesus Christ. We brought the Savior into their lives through family prayer, regular family home evenings, and scripture reading. We weren’t perfect, but we tried, and they knew we loved the Lord and loved them.”