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Jewish World Review Feb. 5, 2002 / 23 Shevat, 5762

Betsy Hart

Betsy Hart
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Consumer Reports

The problems with young love -- ALREADY adults joke with my 7-year-old son, "so, do you have a girlfriend in school?" Or to my 5-year-old daughter, "any boyfriends yet?"

It's cute, but also revealing of the common expectation that at some point, probably by their mid-teens, my children will - should really - pair-off with a member of the opposite sex for a romantic relationship even if it is not sexual.

Most parents, thinking it perhaps unwelcome but certainly inevitable, go along with this now longstanding American tradition, which at some point turned into an obsession with teen romance. Some parents will attempt to set limits on dating, say, allowing it only after a certain age. A few may even try to ban it altogether.

My husband and I are preparing for the all-important teen and "dating" years of our four little ones by even now rejecting each of these approaches.

It's clear to us there is no good thing that can come from young adolescents pairing off in an exclusive romantic relationship. Even if sex is not an issue, there is still nothing positive that can ultimately come from two teenagers wrapping their innocent hearts around each other. Not because such attachments are a bad thing, but precisely because they are a good thing.

We're designed to give our hearts to another. But to make a practice of giving our hearts only and almost inevitably to take them back - or have then handed back - in those tumultuous teen years means either leaving those attachments completely behind us for good and so deadening the heart a little over time, or taking some of the "baggage" of those attachments with us into future relationships. (Or at the other end of the spectrum, dating so "casually" that romantic relationships are trivialized.)

Yet, laying down what must seem like arbitrary rules about dating or hoping to safely tuck away our children perhaps until they can ask or be asked to "court," a new tradition particularly in Christian circles, seems almost as contrived as our culture's obsession with teen romance.

Instead what makes sense to my husband and me is what we've watched many parents of teens, people we respect, successfully do: encourage their kids to enjoy and become comfortable with the opposite sex via friendships, but from the earliest days communicate to their kids the common-sense notion of not attaching their hearts romantically to someone until they can begin to think about giving them fully, and with all the benefits, of marriage.

So for instance in one family we know the parents might allow their teen daughter to go to a particular major event like the homecoming dance with a date, to enjoy the dressing-up and the fun. But they wouldn't allow her to pair off in any kind of a steady or even casual dating relationship. And since from their daughter's earliest days they've spoken not negatively but positively of romance and friendship with the opposite sex, and of its fullest expression being found in marriage, that's become a part of her thinking and her choices, too. (They've also built up her self-image so that she doesn't "need" a boyfriend.)

Sure once in a while she might say something half-jokingly to her mom or dad like "uh, can you help me remember - again - why I'm not dating?" But that just shows that ongoing encouragement and communication is a must. So yes, there are "rules" about dating, but the rules have some flexibility and they make sense because they are based in the lifestyle and principles that guide the entire family.

We've seen teenagers in such families grow into confident, happy, successful adults, many now in happy marriages themselves and generally without the baggage of those tempestuous teenage relationships. The expectations for these kids were always different, and maybe they didn't always live up to them - but they knew they were shooting for a higher bar.

Our older kids already have some sense that our family will do things differently than the culture, and hopefully better, when it comes to what is for them now only the hazy notion of "boyfriends" and "girlfriends." Our goal is for that understanding to become clearer, and more internalized, over time.

Some people will say "that's crazy" - such thinking will never work when those kids hit the teen years. Maybe so. But then again it seems to me such an approach is a lot less crazy, and a lot more hopeful and positive, than giving in to a culture obsessively devoted to encouraging teens to fall in, and out, of love.

JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.


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