Updated: Mar 3, 2021
This is a question I have been asked many times, and with 7 girls and one boy, I have contemplated it for many years in preparation for their young adulthood. The truth is I have reached out to parents myself, those whose opinions I value. I have gathered that there is no line in the sand to be drawn, but there are some basic principles that I think are good to abide by. Does your child know how to be a good friend? Aristotle taught that there are three levels of friendship. Those based on utility (first kind of friendship) and those based on pleasure (second form of friendship) are the most fragile. They are also the least healthy forms of friendship. If we want our children to develop good values and a healthy identity, they need to know and experience the third form of friendship, virtuous friendship. This fullest sense of friendship and Aristotle's third level is not a relationship of self-interest, utility, or pleasure. Instead, it is a relationship based on a common goal, a common good. It is good to have these conversations with your children long before the dating sphere. Help them navigate real virtuous friendships; it will help them internalize these values before dating. They will learn which kinds of relationships bring them the most fulfillment. They will learn that a true friend does not use them for their own ends. Merely learning this will set them years apart from many of their peers and, sadly, many adults. If they cannot hold down true virtuous friendships, they are not mature enough to be dating. I tell parents that their teens should not date random persons they have fallen head over heels for; again, the least healthy form of friendship and a bad foundation for any relationship that can set future precedence.
A teen's first dating experience should take a natural process that develops first out of a virtuous friendship. These first dating experiences should take a genuine, virtuous friendship to the next level. It is a friendship with someone you have developed feelings for, rather than a relationship built on spontaneous feelings (this may come later if and when they learn to orient emotion with the truth of the person). This is most important because the truth of a person should at least be as important as the truth of our sentiments. It is not that they should sweep emotional attraction under the rug. I have been reminded by my own, that this is what first brings you together. They get it, but they also need to learn that our attraction to the other presents you the opportunity to use the person as an object or as a person to love for their own sake. They will have to learn to transform this emotional bond into a virtuous friendship, or it will quickly become a relationship of utility. This emotional connection will continuously supplement the friendship, and the common good always sets precedence. It is this reason that I recommend young teens not to date anyone whom the parents do not know. Usually, this means knowing the parents as well. Think of it this way; most parents determine who their children can associate with, if it does not happen in time, consequentially. We want our children to be friends with kids who have the same values and courtesies of our own. We want them hanging out with kids who help in their character development, not with those who become a bad influence. You know your child's friends. They should not show up at the door with some random person you do not know, because if they are building on a virtuous friendship, you would already know them. This is how your teens learn to value the good in a dating relationship with safe parameters, the same as you would with virtuous friendships. Eventually, of course, when your child matures and develops a well-formed conscience, they will be able to distinguish and rightfully integrate emotional attraction with the truth and value of the other person, but this takes time. The process it usually takes is only going out in groups with other friends and families in which you know—and not being left alone in rooms without adult supervision. You will gradually give way to this when your child has shown maturity. It is different for each child and each family. Again, no line can be drawn in the sand, but helping your child by discussing their current friendships, what they desire and like in these relationships and in which brings them true happiness and fulfillment, helps them internalize what real genuine relationships are made of and set them up for successful healthy dating relationships to come.