My daughter dates by spending hours texting with a guy," my friend told me the other day. "I've never met him, and I don't know what they do online, but it makes me uncomfortable." This friend expressed the same confusion and concern that many parents experience about the teen dating scene.
Today, dating means something completely different from a girl waiting by the phone for a boy to call and ask her out. A mom told me, "I was stunned to learn that dating for my daughter meant Facebook chatting with a guy in her class and changing her status to 'in a relationship.' "
However teens define it, more than half of U.S. teens date regularly (casual, nonexclusive) and a third have a steady (exclusive) dating relationship. Their dating landscape has changed from those of previous generations because of the inclusion of social media and texting and the influence of a young-adult hook-up culture that fast-forwards to casual sex.
So how do we help guide our teens toward healthy, God-honoring relationships? By combining the best of modern and traditional approaches.
Make use of today's customs
Not all modern dating trends are unhealthy. Thanks to a modern tribal mentality, teens are more comfortable getting to know each other in group settings — and often dating in groups. This makes it easier for a love interest to be vetted by friends and for teens to hold each other accountable. Obviously, peer pressure can go in a negative direction, but this lessens when we get to know the individuals in their group. As our teens become attracted to someone, we can ask their friends to help be a gauge for whether our teens are remaining true to who they are or changing their personality to fit with their love interest.
Discuss social media
For those teens allowed to use age-appropriate social media, parents and teens can quickly learn about people's character and values based on what they post on their social media. These searches can be used to start discussions about the qualities of a future mate and what teens are looking for in a boyfriend or girlfriend.
Texting, though not the ideal form of social communication, has a positive side. It allows teens to spend time getting to know each other apart from the physical side of a relationship. Although unmonitored technology could lead to sexting and compromising selfies, parents shouldn't fear this form of communication if they're willing to set boundaries.
Some parents have the rule that if they ask for a teen's phone at any time, the teen must hand it over for texts to be read. If the phone isn't easily handed over, texting privileges are lost for a time. Other parents allow only a certain number of texts, thus requiring teens to be more careful with their words.
Don't forget the past
As strict and "old fashioned" as previous generations may seem, their culture upheld clear moral standards. For instance, an unmarried girl could never be alone with a boy in her bedroom (or anywhere in the house), and teens had curfews. They needed to let their parents know where they were going and what they were doing — and with whom. These boundaries were set up to protect teens from temptation, undue harm and shame. The same boundaries can help keep modern teens' actions in check and safeguard their hearts, minds and bodies from regret and hurt.
Put it all together
Parents really can harness the best of today's and yesteryear's customs. We can encourage group activities, but also require that we meet each "friend" face to face. As we establish reasonable curfews, we can require them to tell us where they are and help them set personal boundaries. We also need to extend those boundaries into any social media and texting we allow them to have.
Setting boundaries, though, isn't a one-time deal. It's important that we keep the dialogue open so we can help our teens understand the why behind every rule and patiently work through their concerns with them.
Our teens aren't really that much different from teens of past generations. Just like we once were, they're apt to be confused about how to deal with the opposite sex. Parents Bryan and Hayley have helped their teens by creating a "safe zone" during the dinner hour. They have open discussions with their three teens about sex, relationships and the importance of giving and receiving respect and honor. This safe zone, where anything can be talked about, helps teens navigate their changing world.
Teens need someone to listen to them, love them and walk with them through the process of establishing healthy relationships. What a wonderful lifelong gift we give our teens when we become that someone for them.