Most parents have happy memories of dating. But today youth ministers, and even some teens, are sounding an alarm, that dating may be more intense and destructive than it was for their parents. Here is how one parish leads their young adults on the narrow path to real love.
But is there a good alternative to dating? One local parish, Christ the King, is trying one out with success. Members of the parish Life Teen group can socialize and have fun without being forced into steady dating before they are ready. Other parishes, like St. Thomas in Ann Arbor, are considering starting Life Teen, according to Outreach Minister Glenn Smith.
Like many of her peers, Anna Bolster started dating in middle school and kept it up in high school. But, near the end of her junior year at Father Gabriel Richard, she decided to give it up completely.
"When I started dating at Forsythe it was, like, you said you were 'going out' and you did this for two weeks; it wasn't very serious. But when I went to high school I was getting emotionally involved," explained Bolster, now 19.
"Whenever I had a crush on someone I would date him; it was pretty frivolous. But it wasn't until I got hurt that I became convinced there had to be a better way," she said.
After her last "inevitable" painful experience, Bolster read the book I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris and decided to do just that. Following through on a decision she made on her Confirmation day years before, she decided to "give my heart to the Lord instead." She stole moments to visit the FGRHS chapel during lunch breaks and study hours. As she sought to deepen her relationship with Him, she asked God to reveal His plans for her vocation.
"When I read that book, I realized you aren't just supposed to date for dating, you are looking to marry someone." She started thinking about what Christian marriage would mean, what kind of man would be a good husband for her and father for her children.
"If I could change it, I wish I hadn't been so focused on the present. I feel some regrets about the guys I dated in high school and wish I hadn't wasted my time on relationships that weren't going to last," she said.
Did Bolster's decision not to date hurt her future? Not at all, she points out. As she prepares to finish her sophomore year in nursing school at Madonna University in Livonia, Bolster is also planning for her marriage next December to fiancé Jesse Ray, 20. The couple, engaged since Dec. 8, met while serving alongside each other babysitting for a Bible study at their parish, Christ the King in Ann Arbor.
The hidden cost of dating
According to Debbie Herbeck of Ann Arbor, Bolster's experience is typical. Herbeck has seen the pattern repeated when she counsels junior-high and high-school girls at Huron Valley School and at the junior-high summer camp she organizes every year at Pine Hills in Hamburg.
"It's the pressure of society that makes these kids feel they have to pretend to be older: the movies, the TV, the music they are listening to," she pointed out.
Herbeck said parishes often approach these trends with naïveté. "All those junior-high dances even at Catholic schools. They don't need to be doing this right now, when they are in seventh or eighth grade; it just puts more pressure on them."
Many of the girls she has met as counselor at the Pine Hills camps keep her updated throughout high school and college about the challenges they are facing. "If you are at Pioneer or FGRHS and you are going to date, you will usually have serious relationships. If you do that, you are probably going to have sex," she said.
An April 26 front-page article in the Detroit Free Press confirms this trend towards hedonism in modern casual dating. The article, titled "Sun, sex and tequila," shocked local parents with an exposé on the extremely heavy drinking and sex orgies taking place among high-school kids who purchased tour packages to visit Cancun during spring break.
Aware of the excesses, the tour companies marketed their specials to high-school students anyway. Instead of attempting to limit these excesses, the companies organized activities with free alcohol and made sure the teens knew the list of rules. First on the list, according to the Free Press, was the rule "What happens in Cancun stays in Cancun."
Herbeck said she makes sure she gives the lowdown on high school especially the speed with which casual dating moves into casual sex to Huron Valley eighth-graders during their retreat.
She said the pressure to rush into intense emotional and/or sexual relationships is strongest on the girls. "The ninth-grade year may be the hardest. At that age girls are looking for affirmation of who they are: they need attention and want to know people like them and think they look nice. They look to peers, and often guys, for that affirmation."
Herbeck said strong friendships are key to resisting peer pressure during high school. "The girls who want to follow the Lord, who have agreed to stay virgins, need very strong peer relationships to go against the pressure. Parental support is also very important for both sexes during the teen years," she said.
Patti Cousino of Ypsilanti agreed. The homeschooling mom of 11 said family and peer support has helped her older children. "We've seen several of our children through this," she said. "We've asked them, 'Are you ready for marriage, or are you just infatuated?' "
One of her sons, Brendan, held himself back from dating the girl he is now dating seriously, Hannah Hendricks, when he first met her in high school. "They chose to see each other only in groups. They both maintained good friendship relationships with peers of both sexes during that time," she explained.
"My daughter Kathleen had her head on pretty clear about what she wanted in high school," Cousino added. When Kathleen was supplementing her homeschool curriculum with classes at Washtenaw Community College, her mother said, she was often approached about dating. "When asked out she would say, 'Are you Christian?' If the young man hesitated she would respond, 'If that's a hard question the answer is no.' "
Jesse Ray, Bolster's fiancé, said he tried to enter the recreational dating game before he met Anna, but it didn't work. "In the summer of 1997 I was girl-crazy. I asked a lot of girls on dates, but no one would go out with me! God was protecting me."
Finally, Ray said, he started to pull back. "I decided not to date for a period of several months. When I met Anna, we were both in a situation where we weren't desiring to be dating, and that turned out to be a good position to be in."
Both were babysitting for their parish's Catholic Bible study put on by Ray's father, Steve. "I remember watching her with the kids and thinking, 'She would make a good wife,' " said Ray.
Before dating for courtship this time both teens consulted with their families and even their pastor, Fr. Ed Fride. Anna also made sure Jesse did a lot of reading. "She put me through the ropes, because she wasn't planning for this to be for nothing," he laughed. "She made me read I Kissed Dating Goodbye, among other things. She made me promise that we would date for six months. At the end of that time we would either decide to marry each other or break up. At that point it would just be recreational, and she didn't want that."
Ray said that, although he didn't really date much in the conventional sense, he had many close friends of both sexes whom he met through his family's homeschooling network of friends.
"When I pulled back from dating, I began to discover that I didn't really have many close friends," explained Anna. "I was amazed to see how many friends Jesse had. I soon developed my own friendships with these people."
Jesse, who started taking courses at Washtenaw Community College at age 16, will graduate in December from EMU with a degree in business administration.
A parish's strategy
Christ the King Parish is now recommending to parish families that they try to steer parish teens away from recreational dating. Fr. Fride and Youth Minister Christa Ozog developed the recommendations.
"Fr. Ed meets with the teens every four to six weeks for 'Stump the Pastor' sessions, and most of the questions a few years ago were about dating," said Ozog.
Fr. Fride said the questions such as, How far is too far? Is French kissing a mortal sin? Is it true a guy should be the one to pursue a girl? showed confusion and anxiety among the teens.
"Our policy is pretty simple," he said. "If you aren't ready to get married, then you aren't ready to date. We have the teens look at seven or eight criteria that need to be in place before they date. We ask them to ask themselves: Do you have a stable relationship with Jesus? Are the primary relationships in your life parents, siblings, peers, authority figures healthy? Are you free of serious sin?"
The priest said the parish is only making recommendations for the families and the teenagers to discuss and, hopefully, act upon. But he emphasized that, if Christian families don't develop an approach to dating, then modern secular American culture may settle the matter in ways they can't accept.
"We've been lobbying all along to have the teens resist the onslaught of lust and promiscuity. We have a set of pregnant teens, like any other parish. Lots of things get delayed when you are building a church, but we want to move chastity education in the parish from junior high down to fifth and sixth grade," he said.
Parents can request copies of the criteria from the parish office, but it is the teens who eventually must decide to use them, Fr. Fride said.
"We are expecting the teens to become mature, to form their judgment and know themselves," he said. "If we can't expect them to handle this much responsibility for honest self-examination, then how can we expect them to judge rightly in the emotionally charged context of a steady dating relationship?"
Ozog said healthy peer relationships are essential. Teens use the parish youth group, Life Teen, to build friendships and have fun without dating.
"Teens need to develop healthy, strong friendships with both sexes. They can have male-female relationships that are non-dating and healthy. They don't have to flirt with a boy to hang out with him," she explained.
Parishioner Connie Hansen said this tactic must be working. Although she didn't know the parish made recommendations against it, she said her teens, 17 and 15, don't engage in recreational dating. "They are involved in Pioneers for Christ (see page 7, this issue), in Mission Christ high-school prayer meetings on Fridays, and in Life Teen," she said. "They have that active fun environment and they really build close relationships with their friends. They love going to these things and wouldn't give them up for something else. They don't need dating," she concluded.
To read a sample chapter from I Kissed Dating Goodbye by Joshua Harris see
Kate Ernsting. "Beyond Dating." Credo (June 2001).
Credo is an independent Catholic weekly newspaper based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Kate Ernsting writes for Credo.Copyright © 2001 Credo
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