People use different words to describe it, but every Christian dad I know wants it for his children—a pure and emotionally healthy path to the marriage altar.

By God’s grace, Terrie and I have watched all four of our children fall in love and marry the spouse of their dreams—and of our dreams for them. What a joy it was to have part in each of these relationships and weddings in which our children stood at a marriage altar and pledged their purity to their spouse.

Obviously, Danielle, Larry, Kristine, and Matt had a lot to do with the “success” of this process. But I’m thankful they allowed me to lead and be involved in this crucial area of their lives.

Here is an overview of what our family practiced:

Preparing a Young Adult for a Dating Relationship

The phrase “young adult” is crucial here. Remember that as your child enters adolescence, he or she needs far more from you than rules. They need reasoning. They need relationships.

In short, they need to know the logic behind your expectations, and they need to have a strong relationship with you.

Boy/girl relationships touch aspects of the heart and emotions (not to mention hormones) that were dormant in childhood. While Scripture commands Christian young people to obey their parents, it also commands fathers to not provoke their children to anger.

Be communicative. Be firm. Be understanding. Be vigilant. Be loving.

That said, here are some thoughts that we worked through with our children in high school:

  1. Relationships in high school should just be good friendships. Young people don’t need added pressure at this stage in their lives. Don’t push them to have a boy/girlfriend or any exclusive friendships for that matter. I asked our children to keep high school relationships to a friendship level, and they honored that.
  2. Establish clear boundaries of friendship communications. We talked with our kids about how much time they were allowed to spend with just one person as opposed to group activities. We limited email, phone calls, and texting with friends of the opposite sex. We asked them to not say “I love you” to anyone without talking to us first. (And we made it clear that we expected that conversation to not take place in high school at all.)
  3. Talk openly with your kids about temptation and the need for boundaries. I like to use the illustration of the guardrails at the Indianapolis 500. Their purpose is obvious—protection. I’d then tell my kids that the boundaries I was placing in their relationships were for their own protection. Terrie and/or I would talk with them about the temptations of adulthood and ask them to be transparent, allow us to help them live victoriously. These conversations sometimes felt awkward, but I’m so glad we were committed to having them. Our children are thankful too.
  4. Encourage participation in youth Bible studies, activities, and camps. I welcomed the influence of other godly people in my children’s lives! If you have personal differences with a youth pastor or youth helper, work them out in a scriptural manner. But don’t deprive your children of opportunities to hear truth from and build relationships with godly people who will help them.

Well before our children graduated from high school, Terrie and I helped them identify the qualities they would want in a mate. We pointed out to them that since dating could very well lead to marriage, we didn’t want them to date someone who would not be the kind of person they wanted to marry.

The Kind of Person I Wanted My Children to Date

  1. A person with a heart for God—The first obvious requirement was that the person was saved. But beyond that, we looked for a person with a heart tender to the Lord. This is not difficult to perceive if your own heart is sensitive toward God.
  2. A person with a good attitude—When the common bond between two young people is dislike for authority in general, it’s a bad start to a relationship. Like a heart for God, a good attitude will quickly manifest itself.
  3. A person who is good in group settings—We watched to see if our child’s friend was comfortable around us and enjoyed group activities. Someone who just wants to pull off in a corner and stare into the other’s eyes raises an immediate red flag to a dad! We had fun with our children on official “dates,” but throughout the relationship, we encouraged them to serve together, have fun with the family, pitch in around the house, and be a help. We wanted assurance that the person they were dating was a mature, secure person.
  4. A person who loved and respected their parents—I told our daughters, “Watch to see if he has a good relationship with his dad and if he is honoring and respectful to his mother.” I said something similar to our sons. If a young person has not learned to respect authority in the home, they will not respect their spouse when there is a clash of interests.
  5. A person who loved their pastor and local church—Even if our child’s boy/girlfriend was not from a saved home, it was important to us that they personally were involved in their church. The local church is both a gift and a responsibility. A Christian without a strong relationship to their church and pastor is missing a vital aspect of the Christian life.
  6. A person whose parents loved their pastor and local church—Of course, no young person is responsible for his or her parents’ choices. But it was important to us that the son or daughter not be passive about church relationships. If they came from a Christian home, but their parents were continually out of sorts with one or another person at church, that was a red flag.
  7. A person whose common bond is not rebellion—This goes with the good attitude, but it’s more direct. When two young people get together because neither one like what they are up against, they’re off to a dangerous start. The natural result will be joint backsliding.

It was important to me that our children wait until their college years to begin serious dating. As those relationships began, we asked them to adhere to the following protocol:

Protocols for the Serious Dating Relationship

  1. The Lord Jesus should be central in lives and often mentioned in conversation. I didn’t expect my future son-in-laws to make their first date a prayer meeting! But I do believe that love for Christ is a necessary foundation for marriage. If two people walk with and love the Lord, it should not be uncommon for them to share on a spiritual level with each other.
  2. Each young person should express their interest to their parents, seeking counsel and approval. Before a serious relationship developed, I asked them to involve Terrie and me. I also wanted their friend to involve his/her parents. As parents, we had a perspective our children didn’t, and we wanted the opportunity to share that with them without us having to become detectives to even know the relationship was underway!
  3. The young people should request prayer from a spiritual mentor and their pastor. As a pastor, I am blessed when young people share with me that they are beginning a relationship and ask me to pray with them. If I happen to have a concern about the relationship, I will share it with them. But usually it’s just an opportunity to be involved in one of the most important decisions of their lives. I pray for them during this time.
  4. When the relationship is moving past the initial friendship, a young man should call the girl’s father for permission to build the relationship. This is an absolute with me. I wanted to know when a man had a serious interest in either of my two daughters. I greatly appreciated those calls from our future sons-in-law. (And they were very smart men to make the calls!)
  5. Beware of a clingy, controlling relationship. A man who is so insecure that he doesn’t want his girlfriend to have other friends is concerning. And the same goes for a girl who doesn’t want her boyfriend to spend any time with the guys. Someone who insists that all free time be spent with them is controlling and selfish.
  6. A young couple should spend some time with parents on both sides. In some relationships, distance or other factors make this impossible. But as much as it can be done, it is wise. Not only does it involve the unique perspectives of all parents, but it allows opportunities for possible future in-laws to build solid relationships.
  7. “I love you” should be reserved for someone you feel the Lord is leading you toward marriage. I know this sounds old-fashioned. But how great for our kids to have reserved these words for the person they married. And should an early relationship not work out, how good for them to have reserved a verbal commitment of love for the person they do marry! No one should marry a person just because the words “I love you” have been exchanged, but these words should be taken seriously. They’ll mean so much more in the long run.
  8. Parents should never push toward marriage. Watching your child build a relationship with the person who will potentially be their future spouse is fun and wonderful (and often frightening!). But don’t pressure them to move faster and make decisions before they have peace from God. Let the Lord lead, and enjoy every minute before you cry your eyes out at their wedding!

I’m so glad we had these kinds of discussions with our children early on, before we were caught up in the predicament of trying to stop a speeding train.

Dating, engagement, and every step of the journey towards marriage is fun and tough all at the same time. Making and communicating these decisions with our children ahead of time allowed us to talk without heavily involved emotions. (But make no mistake about it, the heavily involved emotions did come!)

All four of our children appreciated Terrie and I caring enough to walk with them through this part of their lives. Sometimes they appreciated it more than others, but none of us would trade those journeys for anything.

And, the best part about it is that grandchildren begin to appear on the other side! We’re already praying for their spouses as well….

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