Q & A: How do you handle teens and dating?

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Last week I posted about Hannah and Isaiah’s Spring Formal and shared photos from that night. I received this question about how to handle teens and dating. So today I thought I’d share how our family has handled our teens growing up and dating.

Tomorrow we’ll go back to my series, 30 Days of Intentional Homemaking with the next post in the series!

Q: Melissa! What a sweet post! I just loved seeing all the pics of your girls and hearing about Isaiah. He looks like a sweet kid. So…about teenagers dating. My oldest is almost 17, and we’re just starting the dating conversation as it’s need is becoming a reality for the first time. I’ve always said no dating until 18, too…but then…what does that look like? If your kids are 18 and still living at home, what kind of parameters (if any) do you put on that situation?

I really don’t even want to deal with this. LOL. – Jaime

A: Hi Jaime! This is a great question and one that I have a lot of thoughts on, but I’m not necessarily an expert! But I can share what our family has done and it’s worked pretty well so far.

Let me start by saying that I have made a lot of decisions for my kids based on my past and what I think I could have done better. If you have not read my testimony before, I’ll give you the short version because it really has impacted how I parent.

So, I got pregnant the first time when I was just 14 years old and gave birth to my son, James, when I was 15. He’s 27 and happily married now to a beautiful young woman – I couldn’t ask for more!

Honestly, I didn’t want my kids to repeat some of the same mistakes that I made when I was a kid. Giving birth and then soon after getting married at the age of 15 was hard. I ended up a divorced mother of three by the time I was 21 years old. I went through a lot of pain and heartache during those years and I never wanted my kids to know what that was like.

I decided early on in raising my kids that I wouldn’t allow them to date until they were 18 years old and I made it clear when we would talk what my expectations were. I felt like dating at a young age was just setting them up for heartache. Most relationships that start as a young teen don’t last and there will be a heartbreak when the end of the relationship happens. I believe that the older a child is, the better able they are to make mature decisions. It’s also easier to say no to sex and other types of physical affection when you are older and more confident in yourself.

Okay, but here’s the deal. All of that sounds great, but it’s not something you just one day say to your kid, you’re not dating until your 18 and leave it at that.

Here’s the thing about raising teens. If you don’t have a great relationship with your young kids, you will not have a good relationship with your teens. I’m not saying you can’t improve your relationship with your older kid, pre-teen, or teenager. I am saying it’s a lot harder to improve a relationship when things are already tense.

I’ve talked before about raising amazing kids. If you want to have a great relationship you need to be fully invested in your child. You need to think they are really cool. You need to be interested in whatever your kid is interested in. You need to be their number one cheerleader. You need to talk to them, but more than talk you need to listen. And I mean really listen. Have empathy. Don’t always tell them what to do. Let them make choices. Give advice but don’t lecture. Sometimes you need to let your kid fail or make mistakes – even when you know ahead of time they will make those mistakes. Apologize when you’re wrong. Don’t assume you understand everything or even know everything. Pray hard.

My kids respect me. They come to me for advice. They don’t always take it. I love them anyway. They are their own person and I am not here to tell them exactly what to do or who to be. I am here to support them, encourage them, and lead by example. I talk to my kids every day and I listen to all of their hopes and dreams, their setbacks and failures. I still tuck my teens in bed at night. And we talk. And we laugh. And sometimes we cry.

My kids know I love them and will fight for them. They also know they can come to me and tell me anything or ask me any questions and I will not act horrified, judge them, or get angry. They can trust me.

So let’s talk about how to deal with teens and dating. Now that you understand my perspective I’ll share how we’ve put all of these ideas into practice.

Our rule has always been no dating until you’re 18. We homeschool, so that certainly helps as far as monitoring my children’s social interactions. My son starting dating when he was in college and he met a very sweet young woman who he eventually married. You can read about their courtship here and about their wedding here.

I talked to my girls a lot about being themselves – not trying to be someone else for a guy. For instance, a few years ago, my daughters Sarah and Emily wanted to go on a canoe trip with a church youth group. A number of the girls in their group didn’t want to go because they didn’t want to mess up their hair or look anything but pretty. These girls, preferred to sit and look pretty and look at boys walking by. I told Sarah and Emily that any boy who wasn’t interested in them just because they had messy hair, was sweaty, and out canoeing wasn’t worth their time.

Sarah was 19 when she started dating Ethan. They dated for almost three years before their wedding in September 2017. He was her first boyfriend. I did counsel her before they were engaged that I didn’t want her to think she needed to marry Ethan if she had reservations. They are now married and doing really well and I’m so happy for both of them.

Years ago I had given Sarah and Emily a book titled, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. It wasn’t until a year or two ago that I realized how the purity culture has trained so many young men and women to feel like they need to marry the first person they fall in love with. I don’t want my girls to be afraid to break up with someone if they feel like that person isn’t right for them.

I also do not want my girls to feel like they are broken and unworthy of love if they do make a mistake or find themselves tempted. I carried shame for many years and still struggle with shame. It colors everything I do.

Rebecca Lemke in her post on The Federalist writes: “Purity Culture glosses over one very simple fact: We aren’t pure because of anything we do. We are pure because Christ made us so in his death and resurrection. Our worth is not found in what we have done, but in what he has done for us.” You can read the whole article here.

Emily is in college and she started dating when she was 19. Her first boyfriend ended up being a young man she’d been best friends with for over a decade. I can tell you that when they eventually broke up a year later that it really, really hurt. She lost her boyfriend and her best friend and it took a long time for her to feel whole again.

For a while I was afraid they would have an “on again, off again” relationship as that seemed to be the direction they were headed. I was worried about her. But aside from offering a listening ear and offering some sound advice every now and again, I stayed out of it. I’m thankful her sisters could be frank with her. We were all worried. But I also knew that the situation was delicate and she needed to make that final big decision herself. I couldn’t tell her what to do and I couldn’t make her do what I thought was best. It needed to be her decision for her to know it was the right one.

She called me a few months ago and told me that for the first time she felt like she could move on and that she’d be okay. I was so happy to hear that! My heart hurts when my kids hurt. But she’s okay! And now she’s dating a very nice young man who treats her really well, he’s kind to her, supports her, pays for her when they are out, treats her like a lady and he loves the Lord has a solid plan for his life. I don’t know if they will end up married, but if they do, I believe he will treat her right.

I’m down to my two youngest daughters still at home. Hannah is 17 years old and Laura is 14 years old. This is wear my story changes just a bit. You see, Hannah began a relationship with a nice young man a week before her 17th birthday. I talked about this last week in my post about Hannah and Isaiah’s Spring Formal. But I’ll go ahead and share it again here.

So, basically it all started way back in May 2016. Sort of. That was the first time I really remember meeting Isaiah’s family. Every year I lead out in the Primary Department at our church’s annual camp meeting. It’s a huge job and it’s exhausting. I mean, by the end of the two weeks my entire body hurts, I’m physically exhausted, and some years I hurt so bad I can hardly walk. I’m getting old! But really it has to do with the 16 hour days, the 80+ kids, the concrete floors I have to walk on all day, plus all of the crazy physical set up. On the last night my small team is supposed to tear the whole set down and pack it all up.

Isaiah’s little brothers were in my class and their pastor was on my team. They showed up to help me tear down and I was so grateful!!! I remember them talking about how Isaiah was leaving that night to go work at the summer camp where my daughter Sarah worked and he left at some point in the evening and I thanked him for his help.

We saw Isaiah again at the horse barn the week we were at summer camp. So we knew who he was and Sarah worked in the horse barn, too. But I didn’t pay that much attention to him honestly. I’m not sure if Hannah did or not!

Hannah and Isaiah – April 2018

Fast forward to May 2017 and I was teaching my Primary Department again and Isaiah volunteered to help me the whole week! He was so amazing with all the little kids and the night that the power went out and a terrible storm passed over, he helped me keep the kids occupied and entertained for two hours in the hallway!

I kept telling my girls, “I really like Isaiah. He’s going to make a great husband one day!”

He was tall, and seemed older to me, but I had no idea how old he really was. So on the last night of camp meeting I asked him how old he was and he said, “Seventeen.” I was sure he was at least 19 and it surprised me.

I smiled and said, “Oh, this is my daughter Hannah. She’s sixteen.” Hannah was standing there next to me. I’m sure they were both mortified. Their eyes got big and they both walked away in different directions. Now, honestly, I didn’t think much of it.

But the thing is, it is very important to me that my kids marry someone in the church. We have no prospects in our home church. So, it’s one of those things where my kids are either going to meet someone at our denominational university, at our church summer camp, or at camp meeting. But they know, and I’ve told them over and over and over again that marrying someone who doesn’t share your beliefs may not seem like a big deal when you’re young and dating, but as soon as you have kids it will most likely be an issue. The Bible talks about being equally yoked!

Anyway, that was that.

Flash forward to Sarah and Ethan’s wedding… it was such a perfect wedding by the way! Sarah and Ethan were friends with Isaiah because remember they all worked in the horse barn at our summer camp together. So they invited Isaiah to the wedding. During the reception, Isaiah came over and asked Hannah to dance. She’d never danced before and I don’t think he really had either and it was all very sweet!

I was personally so excited to see them dance. But I tried hard not to make a big deal of it. I can’t really explain why, but I just really liked Isaiah and had such a good opinion of him. Honestly, I’ve never felt this way before and as a mom who’s always been super conservative when it comes to my kids, this was all new.

The next day, as we drove home from Nashville {where the wedding was} I told Hannah she should send Isaiah a friend request on Facebook. And when she logged on the Facebook she saw that he’d already sent her a friend request so she accepted it. And me and the girls chatted and laughed and were in general just excited that he had sent the friend request.

Okay, so my husband was not thrilled. Number one, he’s against dancing. I’m against inappropriate dancing. Just to be clear. What was going on at the wedding was not inappropriate in my opinion. Second, he was not ready for Hannah to be interested in boys. Third, he was not happy with me for encouraging it. I want to be clear here because in all honesty, Hannah would not be dating at 17 if he had not given in and allowed it.

But I really liked Isaiah and since Hannah doesn’t think she wants to go to college {she plans to pursue a career in figure skating} I have always worried she wouldn’t meet someone in the church and it just felt like God worked this out.

Okay, so back to Hannah and Isaiah. The next night, Laura comes running in to where I was working in the laundry room and exclaims, “Mom! Come quick! Hannah’s having a boy emergency!”

And I ran upstairs to find Hannah sitting on the floor looking at her iPod and she says, “He texted me and I don’t know what to say!” He had texted something like, “So, we’ve been introduced twice now. I’m Isaiah.”

So Laura and I helped her figure out what to say over the next few days as he texted her. And then he asked if they could talk on the phone. And they started Facetiming every evening for the next few weeks, slowly getting to know each other better.

Now, mind you, in the past we might have seen Isaiah twice a year a church functions or at summer camp. But we had the opportunity to see him again the following week at a church event in Louisville.

And couple weeks later we saw Isaiah again at a camporee for the weekend. I’m telling you, it was uncanny how many opportunities Hannah had to see him in those first few weeks when ordinarily we might see him two or three times a year. He lives near Louisville about four hours from us.

Two weeks later he came to Harlan County with his school for a mission trip. That Tuesday morning my husband drove Hannah over to Lynch, Kentucky about 20 minutes away where Isaiah and his school were working and serving at a mission there. We had gotten permission from the school principal to let Hannah come and work for the day.

That’s the day Hannah and Isaiah made it “official” that they would start dating. Isaiah had told her several times over the phone that he didn’t want to make it official until he could see her in person.

By this point, it was hard for them to say goodbye and I know long distance relationships can be hard. Isaiah and his family came to spend the day after Thanksgiving with us at our house and Isaiah stayed the weekend. And then two week later Isaiah came again to stay with us for the weekend, while he and his whole family came down to Knoxville to watch Hannah perform in the Nutcracker on Ice.

Since then, Hannah and Isaiah have seen each other about once a month. He’s either come to see us at our house for a weekend or I’ve gone with Hannah to his house and we’ve stayed a few days. When we went to Michigan to visit Sarah and Ethan for New Year’s weekend, Isaiah was able to go with us. Which was great because he was already friends with Sarah and Ethan before he really knew Hannah.

Hannah and Isaiah have not yet been on a “real date” and they’ve never been alone. When visiting at each other’s homes, there has always been a chaperone. So they haven’t spent time alone. I’ve had talks with them about waiting to have sex and other relevant topics. Isaiah has assured me multiple times that he wants to wait for marriage and that he plans to always respect Hannah. I personally talk to Isaiah a lot and I’ll be honest, I love him very much. I’ve told him over and over he’s like one of my own kids. I couldn’t love him more.

Isaiah is now 18 {19 in October} and Hannah will be 18 in November. I don’t think I will regret allowing them to have this relationship. I think it’s been very good for Hannah and I believe Isaiah loves and respects her. They have a lot to learn, but I’m there and his parents are there and we are all working together to support them and help them make the best choices possible. Because of the long distance we’ve tried to be as flexible and kind to them as possible, respecting the fact that they do love each other very much.

It’s been almost six months and I love seeing how they interact, how they are getting to know each other, watching them figure things out. And I love that they both feel like they can talk about hard stuff with me.

I mean, look at her face – pure joy!

I don’t know if this answered your question, but it gives you some idea of how we’ve handled our teens and dating. It’s so important to help our kids make good choices, but we also have to give them the freedom to make mistakes – while setting boundaries to keep them safe.

There is no right way to parent each child. I’ve tried to raise all of my kids the same – my older kids have teased me about letting Hannah date while they had to wait until they were older, but they like Isaiah and are ultimately happy for her.

So, I hope this helps you make good parenting decisions. If you have any other questions about teens and dating, let me know!

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  1. So, I was searching for a bible study on Job and found yours. Great insight! Then somehow I stumbled upon this post. We think very similarly about raising teens and dating. My son just turned 16 and I have been very open and honest with him about my past. It has proven very effective. He is very determined to wait to date until college and when he does to be very intentional with his choices. I started dating young and doing things I should not have been doing. I married his father in my mid 20s but we got divorced. He has no relationship with his father. I remarried when he was 4 and had a daughter (now 11). That man and I separated two years ago due to many years of emotional abuse. It hasn't been pretty for me! But, God has turned all this for good! My kids take relationships very seriously. It has brought us close. Like yours, they know I love them and are here for them. They can be real with me. So, even though things are tough for us in many ways, I am thankful for the closeness with the kids it has given me.