Rev. Bruinsma is pastor of Kalamazoo Protestant Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
When may our children date?
It has been some time now since we wrote concerning the subject of dating or courtship within the church. We have considered such subjects as: the goal of dating, who must take the lead in dating, whom we may date, parental authority over dating, and where to go on a date. All of these are very practical questions for both parents and young people in the church who need a sanctified, godly answer. We may not simply follow after the godless and unbelieving trends that are set for us by society.
There is one more question concerning courtship that is of utmost practical significance: when ought I allow my child to begin dating? This question may not be left up to our children to answer. God holds covenant parents responsible for an answer to this question. Neither ought the parent to allow society to determine the answer to that question, or, what is perhaps a greater temptation, peer pressure in the church. Oh yes, parents are under peer pressure too! The greatest temptation for a parent in this regard is simply to “follow the crowd.” If everyone else in the church is doing it, it must be right! Besides, if I do not allow my child to begin dating when everyone else does, my child will be left behind! Ah, the unnecessary pressures parents place on their children, all because they are afraid their children are going to be left behind without a life’s mate! Sometimes one cannot help but wonder whether it is the parent more than the child who insists that the child start dating at too early an age.
Before answering the question of when to begin dating, let’s take a close look at a trend of our modern society that seems to be exerting much influence on the church. Society is pressing the responsibilities of adulthood upon children at an increasingly younger age. This is partially due to the fact that children are exposed to certain adult matters that should wait until they are mature enough to evaluate them correctly. I read in a monthly periodical recently of a father deciding to teach his child about the facts of life at the age of six! Scholastically, children from preschool on are often placed under tremendous pressure by schools and parents to absorb the immense quantity of knowledge that is being discovered. Children are forced to face adult issues because parents divorce or are gone so much that the children are left to fend for themselves, taking on responsibilities that belong to parents. Television, movies, and music confront the smallest of children with issues that they do not even yet comprehend, but which they nevertheless absorb as a part of their consciousness.
This trend has indeed spilled over into the whole area of dating. Children of junior high age are encouraged by parents to go with this guy or that girl. Parents think it is cute. Either that, or parents are so self-absorbed that they do not even notice that their children are following after what they have watched for countless hours on the television set. The statistics are true: the earlier that a child begins dating, the more likely that child is to become involved in premarital sex. Such is the trend in our modern society. Is that the trend that covenant parents want to follow with the precious seed God has given them to raise? Is that what believing parents who desire to see their children enter into a solid, happy marriage want for their children? It is important for every parent within the sphere of the church to answer the question knowledgeably: when ought I to allow my children to begin dating?In a certain sense it would make things much easier if we were to pass a law at this point. A parent may not allow his child to date before the age of sixteen, or before the age of eighteen, or what have you! The Bible does not lay down such a law. God leaves this question up to the Christian liberty in which we live as believers. But that does not mean that we are not able to come up with an answer to our dilemma. There are a number of givens that parents must consider in attempting to answer this question.
The first is an understanding of the physical, psychological, and even spiritual development of our children. It is a foolish parent that does not understand the difference between adolescence and childhood. When our children reach puberty they reach that intermediate stage in their lives during which they develop from a child dependent on mother and father to maturity, able to make decisions independently of parents. Adolescence is a period of time through which every child must go in order eventually to become a mature adult. A covenant parent must treat his child accordingly. Many parents have a hard time with this age because, on the one hand, they still must deal with their children as children. Yet, on the other hand, they must begin to deal with their children as those who will soon be adults. Spanking a child when the child does wrong is a necessity and will assist that child in learning right from wrong. Spanking a teen when he does wrong will only bring rebellion and perhaps even mockery.
This does not mean that, though a parent now reasons with his child, the child is given freedom to do what he wants to do. This is where many parents fail when it comes to raising a teenage child. Because the child now seems to have a “mind of his own,” parents when met with resistance simply give in to their child. And they reason to themselves, “Well, he is older now, and I have to let him make these decisions for himself.” That is a serious mistake. My thirteen or fourteen year old is not old enough to make decisions for himself or herself. Why not? Because, as much as they want to think they are, children of this age are not yet adults! They have not yet reached the age of maturity. They are only just beginning to learn discernment for themselves. Mother and father may not simply let go and allow the child to do what he wants to do. Mother and father may not simply allow their children to run free because at the age of sixteen they now have the keys to the car. Parents still have to make decisions for their children. A wise parent will hold his adolescent in check — a pretty tight rein at first. Slowly (and with some children very slowly), as the child grows older, the reins will be let loose. As the parent sees the child maturing, making decisions that show wisdom, the parent will give the child more freedom. There will come a time, and that soon enough, when the parents are able to drop the reins completely and let their children run at their own pace. This understanding of our children is necessary as we determine when they may date.
There are several other determinations we also must make before we allow our children to date. These all deal with what we have written in previous articles. Is my child mature enough to understand that dating is not a game, that dating is not to be used as a form of recreation? Does my child understand that dating is courtship and must be used seriously to find a life’s mate? If my child cannot understand this, he or she is not old enough to date. Perhaps it even starts before this, with the parents themselves. Parents must understand the purpose and goal of dating. It is usually the parents who do not understand this who have no problem permitting children who are too young to date. Once parents understand that dating is courtship, they must make sure that their children do too, before allowing them to date.
A second determination we must make is this: Is my son or daughter spiritually mature enough to date someone? Can they carefully discern between a believer and an unbeliever? Do they know it is a sin to date an unbeliever? Are they spiritually mature enough to detect who is a true believer even within the sphere of the church? Do they know that they are not all Israel that are of Israel? Once again, parents themselves must first of all be sensitive to these things in order that they might be sure their children are. In this connection too, we must detect in our children a certain amount of spiritual responsibility. Has my son shown that when I allow him to go out on his own with a young woman of the church, he will go to places that will help build up his relationship with her rather than ruin it? Does he know that life is not made up entirely of recreation? Does he know what forms of recreation are acceptable for a child of God? Is my son or daughter spiritually mature enough to date?
These are questions that we need to ask ourselves as parents before allowing our children to date. Will there be loud protests from our children? Probably! Especially in light of the pressure that society is placing upon them. Our children will think themselves old enough to date just as soon as they find physical and emotional attraction toward the opposite sex. But as parents we ought to know our children well enough. And we ought to sit down with them and reason with them carefully, explaining to them that their time to date will come. In the meantime, they must simply enjoy the friendships they have developed in the church with their peers.
Children need this kind of guidance, parents! They may not realize it, but we must be wise enough to know it. By exerting our authority over our children and saying “no” to premature dating we are doing our children a great service. It removes from them the pressure that if they do not find a girlfriend or boyfriend early on in high school they are going to be left behind! Our children do not need that pressure! When we see our youth beginning to make other mature decisions in their lives, such as a life’s vocation and making confession of faith in the church, finding a godly mate will come together with these things.
Let the unbelieving world do what it wants to do. Our goal is that our children form solid marriages through which the covenant of God might be carried on in our generations. We must teach our children to strive for that goal too. May we as parents be given wisdom to lead our children into marriages that are rooted in Christ!