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Is There a 'Right' Age for Your Child to Start Dating?

Is There a ‘Right’ Age for Your Child to Start Dating?

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The question was dreaded, and my daughter waited patiently for her answer. She was ten years old. I may have had a heart attack. After a moment to calm myself, I first inquired why she was asking and was immediately relieved that she wasn’t of the mindset to start dating but that her friend in 4th grade had just announced she had a boyfriend. In addition to that, she reminded me that her cousin had been told she had to be sixteen before she could date.

My response was to ask her the same questions. “How old do you think you should be before you start dating?”

She opted for the typical sixteen, probably because that seems to be a norm in many families we’re around. Fast forward, and she’s well on her way to being fifteen, so hypothetically, we’re only about a year and a half away from the magical dating age of sixteen. We had a similar conversation the other day; only I initiated it.

“So, are you going to start dating when you’re sixteen?”

She stared at me in shock that I asked and then replied, “Why waste my time?”

After I got done doing my secret happy dance in the kitchen and throwing broken spaghetti noodles as makeshift confetti, I realized that was an interesting response for a teenage girl to give. I called her back in and asked her why she’d reacted that way.

“Well, it’s not like I’m going to get married when I’m sixteen. Not to mention, the whole dating thing seems to wreck friendships, and I’d rather not do that when there’s no end game to dating. I’ll wait until I’m older. Like maybe eighteen. When I can start thinking about the long-term.”

It was all so practical and nonchalant; not the atypical teenager. So I’ll take it. But that brings me to my point. If you asked me today how old my daughter needs to be before I’m comfortable with her dating, I’d say she can make up her own mind at this point going forward. But that’s also because she’s shown a remarkable and, I believe, God-given amount of maturity when weighing the pros and cons of dating as a teenager. Her motivations for dating aren’t status, competition, emotional highs, or hormonal impulses. Right now, anyway, her motivations for dating are to find someone who shares her values, heart, and faith and has an end game in mind.

So what is it about the magical age of sixteen? I think we’ve landed on applying an age to dating because it sets expectations and, in a way, gives us, as parents, an out for the younger years. Sixteen is the age at which kids begin to drive, often start being employed more consistently, and begin testing the waters more seriously for adulthood. I could make the argument that, based on those pressures alone, adding a relationship and dating is the perfect reason why sixteen is simply too young to date. But I won’t.

Instead, the argument I’d like to make—or rather the challenge I’d like to put out there for parents—is to avoid the magic age of anything for dating. There’s a lot that goes into teenage relationships. Must I list the pressures? Physical affection, peer pressure, boy/girl dating drama in high school, the added elements of social media, photos, texting, and rumor-mongering, etc. That’s a lot to process as your brain is still developing into adulthood. And truly, what is the end game of a teenage dating relationship? I’ve known two sets of high-school sweethearts in my lifetime that got married. That’s not a strong statistic for a long-term probability of faithfulness.

That being said, a parent may argue that teenage dating is for learning how to interact with the opposite gender in a relationship construct. They may say teenage dating isn’t meant to be for courtship or marriage, but instead, it’s just for fun, socialization, and the learning experience. And you could be right. I’m not here to argue for or against teenage dating but rather to help us determine the right age to start dating.

So, as parents, let’s ask ourselves these questions instead:

Does my child have a track record of integrity and self-control?

Does my child have enough self-worth to say “no” when it’s needed and to stand up for themselves in the event of abuse, bullying, and so on?

Does my child respect themself enough to be content as their own individual, or do they example a more needy personality that relies on another person for their contentedness, happiness, and self-worth?

Does my child have the wherewithal to deny their own emotional impulses?

Does my child have the ability to set healthy boundaries?

Does my child have a clear idea of what they want and need in a boyfriend/girlfriend?

And the list of questions goes on. I realize some of us are reading that list and thinking, “I’m not sure I even fulfill the proper answer to those questions!”

Therein lies my point. Dating at any age is an ongoing learning process on how to balance relationships, healthy boundaries, faith, emotional and mental health, and spiritual consistency. So as your teenager is developing in these areas on their own, if they begin dating, they’ve now introduced another person into the equation of influencing their development. This can be very positive. It can be very negative. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer.

And that’s really what it comes down to. I propose that there isn’t one right age for your child to begin dating. It might cause some family strife, but you may have one child who could start responsibly dating by the time they’re fifteen and the other not until they’re seventeen. Of course, once they’re eighteen, you’re pretty much out of luck enforcing anything, and some of us aren’t sure our twenty-some-year-olds should be dating yet.

The key is helping prepare your children for dating. Taking that list of questions and being conscientious in helping them learn those qualities, establish those beliefs and philosophies, and build their own sets of boundaries.

As someone who was in youth ministry for over twenty years, I saw far too many teenage dating relationships begin on the endorphin rush of “he/she is cute” and the adrenaline of being able to announce to peers that “I’m dating so and so.” Those relationships typically crash and burn fast, resulting in “cheating” (not even sexually, but when a boy texts another girl, cheating has occurred), and then the gossip and chatter begin among the peers, which only exacerbates the situation. I’ve also seen some healthy teenage dating relationships that didn’t end in marriage but maybe lasted eight months to a year. But those relationships had healthy boundaries the teenagers set for themselves and their parents set for them. Those teenagers also typically had healthy relationships with their parents and a foundational base of their own faith and self-esteem that they weren’t relying on their dating partner to create their value.

So as a parent, be careful of choosing an “age” when dating is “okay.” Your teenager may not be ready yet, and when you get there, you might regret ever setting that criteria. On the flip side, your teenager may be mature and ready to explore relationships in a healthy way that isn’t detrimental to their development. It might seem a tad overbearing at that point to hold the age of 18 over them as the age they can choose to date and there’s no dating allowed as a teenager prior.

Take your time to know your child. Take the time to instill values in them and truly ask yourself the questions that will help you identify if your child has reached the level of maturity to handle a relationship responsibly.

Will there be break-ups? Most likely. Broken hearts? Probably. Mistakes made? Inevitably. But the foundation of your child plays a big part in how severe those -lys become. So be cautious of identifying one right age, and instead, identify your child’s character and maturity, and go from there.

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Jaime Jo Wright is an ECPA and Publisher’s Weekly bestselling author. Her novel “The House on Foster Hill” won the prestigious Christy Award and she continues to publish Gothic thrillers for the inspirational market. Jaime Jo resides in the woods of Wisconsin, lives in dreamland, exists in reality, and invites you to join her adventures at jaimewrightbooks.com and at her podcast madlitmusings.com where she discusses the deeper issues of story and faith with fellow authors.



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