Dating…Already?! Laying a Foundation for Future Relationships

by Amy Dillar

As you look at the faces of your little ones, dating is probably the farthest thing from your mind. You are up to your eyeballs in parenting the here and now, so why introduce something your kids won’t even be thinking about for years? The idea may seem preposterous but hear me out. Parenting with the future in mind is always a good idea. Keeping the end goal of raising Jesus-following, responsible young people ready for life outside your home helps guide your decisions today. Establish the foundation for the future at young ages so that your children will have the skills they need when the time for dating comes. And it will come…the idea and desire to have a special relationship probably will occur earlier than you’d like. Laying the groundwork for dating now sets the stage for healthy decisions later. And it’s not as tricky or as difficult as you think because, at this stage, it’s all about relationships. Think about the relationships your child has right now with you, siblings, grandparents, teachers, and friends. The qualities in these personal connections are no different from those to look for in a dating relationship. Your children are learning how to understand and evaluate people, along with the basics of relating to others. It’s important to establish and practice healthy decision-making when it comes to choosing friends and navigating family relationships. These skills are developed through observation, conversation, and experience. Young children learn a great deal from the world around them. They are keen observers. If you haven’t already, you will see yourself pouring out of your children – behaviors, and words both flattering and unflattering. Even when they don’t yet have words to talk about what they’re seeing, they are still absorbing ideas. You want to establish at an early age from whom they get their information. People, music, television, movies, and social media all influence a child’s developing understanding of life with others. Of all these voices, you want yours to be the most important. Subtly and not-so-subtly, the media introduces all kinds of ideas about relationships. You need to model the kind of relationships you want your children to have with others. In your life with a spouse or dating partner, with family, and with friends, what you say and do matters a great deal. If you normalize unhealthy relationships, your children will very likely follow suit. Be aware of the way you talk about and interact with others, the qualities that draw you to friends and marriage or dating relationships, and the boundaries you set. Little eyes see, hear, and internalize your example. Talk with your children about the cornerstones of healthy relationships. Above all else, following the Lord, growing to be more like Jesus, and living out faith in Him are the most important qualities to look for in others. If someone genuinely honors the Lord, he/she will honor others. Out of a relationship with God, other important qualities flow – integrity, trust, kindness, compassion, respect, etc. Both people in any relationship need to demonstrate these characteristics in their lives in order to form the best kind of bond. Ask your children what they think makes a good friend, a good family member, or a good person to date or to marry. You’ll chuckle at their cute responses, but you may also be surprised at the insight kids demonstrate. Another important aspect of relationships to consider is the ability to set boundaries. Not only do you need to teach the concept of boundaries, but you should also take cues from your child when they have strong reactions to interactions with others (including you). Be sensitive to boundaries your child is setting even before they have the words to express them. When a child is terrified to do something, that’s an indication there needs to be a boundary put in place. If he or she resists hugs or kisses from another person, protect that instinct. Being allowed to establish boundaries at a young age teaches kids it’s healthy and appropriate to draw a line and expect others not to step over it. Think about how learning and practicing this trait early will make it second nature in friendships and dating. Your children can learn endless lessons in recognizing healthy and unhealthy relationships through their own experiences. Learning how to respect others and expecting respect in return begins with family relationships and expands to include friendships as a child grows. Sibling relationships are great practice for navigating others. Christlike behaviors will be evident, as well as disrespecting and dishonoring one another. Your role is to point out the positive character traits, correct the negative ones, and guide your children to recognize these traits in themselves and in their siblings and know what to do to repair the relationship when hurts happen. As kids get older and form friendships with peers, more experiences will arise for you to help your children become more and more able to recognize healthy and unhealthy friendships as well as develop the skills to be a good friend and to mend hurt feelings when disappointing behavior takes place. As your children enter the upper elementary grades, the conversation will expand to include your family’s view of and guidelines for dating. But for now, focusing on positive traits to develop in themselves and to look for in others, as well as negative traits to avoid, helps to establish the kind of foundation you want your kids to have before the dating stage comes. Take the time today to invest in your children’s tomorrow. As far off as dating seems now, it’s never too early to help your kids learn to handle relationships in a healthy way.