Tuesday, January 8, 2013

"Protecting" the Kids From Dating

Part Two in a series on emotional modesty. Part one is here.

The very first line of the CD's very first post struck a chord.
The really old Italian priest at the Latin Mass chapel I attend when on the West Coast gave a sermon once about how parents shouldn't discourage their teenagers from having boyfriends and girlfriends. I thought it was pretty funny, and it didn't occur to me until about five minutes ago that maybe he was talking about that whole emotional chastity movement.

 When I read that paragraph I immediately thought of two concrete examples of this sort of idea taken to extremes. A family that I know quite well did not let their children date at all in their teen years. They were tacitly encouraged to be attracted to movie stars, fictional characters, etc. but crushes on other teenagers were implicitly forbidden. The girls, even into their twenties, were convinced that it was a mortal sin to like a guy, unless he liked them first.

In another family I know, the 21 year old son is still not allowed to drive female friends home by himself. There must be someone else in the car with them as chaperone.

The rationale, such as it is, behind both of these attitudes seems to me to be well-intentioned, at least on the most basic level. The parents grew up continually exposed to sex, drugs and rock-n-roll in their teen years, and so have a very acute awareness of the dangers of such temptations. They desire to protect their children from these temptations, so they make rules that perhaps they wish they had kept when they were young. They draw lines, thinking that as long as their children do not cross those lines they cannot be drawn into sin.

Unfortunately this approach is not true to human nature. There are a couple of major flaws in it:

1)    First, it gives the wrong impression. It assumes that boys and girls cannot behave when they are alone together, and therefore must constantly be under supervision. Often there is an unstated emphasis on the boy in the situation, as if the girl needs to be protected from his boyish nature, and he needs to be protected from himself. This is a terrible assumption. Not only is it unjust, and it has something of the nature of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is just as wicked and dishonest as the worldly version of manhood that tells boys that they need to lay as many girls as possible to be a man, and it has the same root, and the same effect. The root is the assumption that “That’s just how men are,” and “Boys will be boys.” The effect is to give men the impression that we are helpless slaves of our biology, and consequently we should either despair of ever being pure, or just laugh off our sins as simply “boys being boys.”

2)    Second and more foundationally, we were not put on this earth to avoid sin. We were put on this earth to know, love and serve God and our neighbor. This means that we must live. Sinlessness is not a requirement for entrance into Heaven. Love is. Avoidance of sin is a crabbed, stilted, pitiful imitation of the boundless energy, the joyous vitality, the fierce, unconcerned freedom of the pursuit of holiness. Sometimes simply avoiding sin is the best we can do. I admit that. I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t. However, categorically basing the raising of teenagers on the principle of merely avoiding sin is dangerous. It gives sin more power than it ought to have.

3)    In most societies prior to ours, teenagers of 16 or 17 were regarded as adults, and expected to behave as such. It is our society that keeps pushing the limits of adolescence further and further and further, by not requiring maturity of teenagers, then of highschoolers, then of college students, and now we do not even require maturity of grown men of thirty years old. My entire adult life has been spent as a leader in the military. Because I could keep my nose clean, I was put in charge of my peers right from the beginning, and told to keep their noses clean as well. I have over ten years of experience in leadership, and the one rule, the only thing I have learned with any certainty, is that people cannot be pushed into maturity. They can be pushed or coerced into meeting a standard, as long as that standard is mediocre enough, but no human being can be forced to mature. They can only be invited, and then allowed the chance to succeed or fail. In my experience, more often than not young people rise to the level of trust placed in them, but there are no guarantees. Sometimes people fail, and a leader must give them that opportunity. 

4)    As with anything having to do with people, you cannot fight nature and expect there to be no consequences. Teenagers are designed to be interested in the opposite sex. God made them that way. It is not a bad thing. It is a good thing. It draws people into relationship with each other. Does it also provide opportunity for temptation? Yes. But to quote Catholic blogger Seraphic Singles "Eros… is above everything else an impulse to escape the prison of one's own ego to connect with someone or something else." To hear a lot of Catholic speakers, writers and leaders on the subject, (and my younger self was guilty of this at, say, 15 years old) one would think that the burgeoning of human sexuality in the teen years was a bit of a mistake. A miscalculation on God’s part, if you will, which puts all of us in a devilish awkward position, what with having desires that can only be satisfied by marriage, and yet being too young to marry. Best thing to do is teach the kids to ignore those desires for relationship, lock them in a closet until your 21st birthday, and then let them out when they are mentally, emotionally, and financially ready for marriage.

There are consequences for stifling these budding romantic attractions. Most of the time it is done by making the kids feel that there is some sort of stigma attached to those feelings, or even that they are somehow dirty or bad. Whether the parents intend this or not, that can be the result.

I think what is needed is to recognize things for what they are. Here are three facts that I can think of off the top of my head which ought to be recognized:

1)    The truth is that teenagers are going to have crushes on other teenagers. If they are not that is probably not healthy. Something is very wrong when young men and women are not attracted to one another, or have no desire for relationship with each other.

2)    Teenage crushes are not permanent, nor are they necessarily very profound. This does not mean that they are not real. It is one thing to remind a teenage girl that her crush on a boy is not on the same level as the love Grandma and Grandpa have for each other. All kids need to be reminded of this, and the perspective is priceless. It is quite something else, however, to laugh at her feelings, or to make fun of them. Her feelings are real. She is really feeling them. They are probably immature, and perhaps a bit silly. Perhaps they are a lot silly, but they are the best she can feel for now. No one makes fun of a toddler for falling over while learning to walk. Why should we make fun of teenagers for bumbling clumsily about while learning to love?

3)    No one (except the teenagers themselves) expects teenage romances to be permanent. The kids are going to get their hearts broken. There is no point in deliberately courting heartbreak, but neither should parents be overly concerned with protecting their kids from it. We learn from heartbreak. It presents us with a choice, whether to grow or to shrink back into ourselves, and this choice is the meaning of our very lives.

I think all parents fear for their children. They think about their children falling in love with other children, and they see all the worst case scenarios: STD’s, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sin, and disgrace. They try to shield their children from these consequences by shielding them from the relationships that could be a temptation to them, without realizing that these relationships are also opportunity. We fear the possibility of failure, so we have a tendency to pass up opportunity for victory.

On a larger scale, that is why our culture is the way it is. We Christians are not going out and living and loving fearlessly. We are isolating ourselves in communes so that we will not be corrupted, rather than going out and carrying the gospel into the very teeth of the world.


  1. FYI, the prohibition against the 21 year-old driving in the car with a young girl unchaperoned has nothing to do with trust of the young man (or the young lady for that matter) I trust them both. The prohibition is so that they don't become grist for the small town rumor mill. It already happened with one of the young man's brothers. It is no different than encouraging young people to go out together in groups, especially when they are not being exclusive, it cuts down on idle talk and damaging stories.

  2. The first numbered paragraph hits it on the nail. I'm still trying to recover from the fear-based "advice" about men that my mom passed on to me. Thank you for expressing what is wrong with this approach so clearly.

    I appreciate that a girl has to be careful, and I've surely reaped the rewards of this carefulness over the years, in that I haven't had any truly sorrowful or damaging experiences with guys. But a girl also has to develop the skills to discern which men CAN be trusted, and once she has discerned whether the man can be trusted, to let those iron walls crumble and smile, for pity's sake!

  3. I agree with Auntie, often the 'protection' has nothing to do with a lack of trust... gossip can be much more serious, especially when everything is completely pure. I have definitely had experience with that!
    Since I was homeschooled, but am a grade school teacher; I have definitely seen both extreme sides of relationships and the responses to them. I am blessed that my family has always been pretty balanced. I do, however, understand the rational (which you put quite clearly) behind the will to protect. There are many misguided views of relationships out there… I teach kindergarten children who are teased about having a boyfriend/girlfriend when they are playing with other children. I really think that one cannot have a proper relationship unless they are able to have a friendship… but that is difficult when you have children in grade six dating, who are afraid to be friends since our culture says that a ‘romantic’ relationship is the only way that girls/guys can interact.
    There are many flaws with the drastically protective view, and you pointed those out clearly… esp. the second one: that we were not put on earth to avoid sin, which is an important point! To quote St. Augustine: “Love God and do what you will!”…. I know so many people who don’t get that quote, but it is so true, if you truly loved God you would live out his will/the good. I would like to add to your 4th point, however, on the consequences of the extreme view… I know young people who, once they have left home (for either work or university), have rebelled against everything they have been taught. When you fight nature… the misunderstandings can chase your children away.
    There is, however, a balance that you and your commenters have mentioned. There is a healthy way to protect your children, I think, and yet allow/encourage/help them to grow in relationships. They are opportunities for sure, as you said, but they have to be approached with a healthy perspective. I will be honest; neither of us are parents and, thus, have not had a lot of experience from a parental perspective. I tend towards being protective (I have 6 younger siblings)…. There is a point where you have to evangelize the world, but you do need the tools to do so. A priest goes through years of training to teach, you went through years of training to be able to protect/lead others… children/families should not be feed to the world. There is a way to live in the world, but not be part of it.
    I hope this doesn't come across too critically!!!!

    God bless,

  4. I will add to what Frances is saying- although some of us do not have children, it is the same principle as priests giving marriage advice, and good advice at that. It can still be done because priests observe and study. Also, in the way that mystical marriage exists (exemplified by the saints), so too can non-child rearing peoples experience motherhood or fatherhood. The difference is that it is spiritual, not biological. Even when we lead other people, we are leading them as mothers and father would lead- in Christ's example of love. If we lead by fear instead of love, we project that fear, which is not what we really want for them, or what they really need.

  5. This is fabulous. Great post. And I totally agree that the age of adulthood is getting pushed farther and farther into the future. Who benefits from this? Nobody. I think there's a window of time (possibly during adolescence, although it probably varies between people) when there's a desire for maturity and more responsibility. But if the person doesn't get, or is held back or given bad guidance, then the immaturity starts to be comforting and familiar and it is much harder to break later on.

    I used to help tutor a homeschooling family and one day I saw their little one year putting plastic cups in the bottom drawer in the kitchen. I was really impressed that he was helping empty the dishwasher and the mom said, "When they're really little they want to help with things and it's sort of inconvenient because it takes much longer to show them how, and it's not really helping, but if you don't let them then when they get older they don't want to do anything." Not trying to compare teenagers to one year olds, but you get the idea.

    "Often there is an unstated emphasis on the boy in the situation, as if the girl needs to be protected from his boyish nature, and he needs to be protected from himself. This is a terrible assumption."

    Yes, this is everywhere, and it is very depressing. I hardly know anyone who doesn't think some version of this.

  6. I think it is very important to remember when protesting other peoples methods of parenting that there is not a single perfect way to parent. One family may feel called to live more within the culture then another. There is nothing wrong with separating your family from the world (or monasteries would be evil) or from the culture of death. Also, as Auntie's comment points out, there are often reasons that don't come with the rumors for many of these "rules."