“A date is a planned activity that allows a young man and a young woman to get to know each other better. In cultures where dating is acceptable, it can help you learn and practice social skills, develop friendships, have wholesome fun, and eventually find an eternal companion.”

That passage from For the Strength of Youth used to make me think of settings where dating is not the way things are done like that of Brother and Sister Chon. Brother Chon, my bishop when I courted and wed Sister Mansfield, had been a missionary in his native Korea, and following his mission, his mission president took Brother and Sister Chon’s non-LDS fathers out to dinner and arranged a marriage. With the approval of the fathers obtained, the mission president brought the couple together to see what they thought of the idea. Sister Chon asked her proposed future husband if he would always pay tithing. He said he would, and she accepted him. It was sweet almost three decades after their introduction to one another to sit in their home and hear her tell her happiness in marrying a Mormon boy.

“You should not date until you are at least 16 years old. When you begin dating, go with one or more additional couples. Avoid going on frequent dates with the same person. Developing serious relationships too early in life can limit the number of other people you meet and can perhaps lead to immorality. Invite your parents to become acquainted with those you date.”

Over the last several years, it’s become apparent my early 21st Century American culture is another where dating of the For the Strength of Youth variety is not acceptable. The February New Era accurately describes the environment that youth in my ward have experienced:

Around here, “dating” implies a physical relationship, and I don’t want that reputation.
In many places throughout the world, when youth walk down the halls of their schools, they see quite a few of their classmates hugging, kissing, and so on. For the passersby, it can be quite uncomfortable. But for LDS teens, it also makes dating awkward because this kind of behavior is often what’s expected of “dating couples.” So, for instance, if you were to tell people that you went on a date with so-and-so, they may assume that you and so-and-so had started a physical relationship.
What to do? The best thing is to let your standards be known so that nobody gets the wrong impression about you or the person you go out with. Not dating is also an option, but even then, people ought to know what your standards are. 

“Mormon-style” dating (going out with different people) just isn’t done around here. It’s all about boyfriend-girlfriend relationships. You’ll get a bad reputation if you date around.
This is a tough one, because the culture of much of the world is following a trend in which boy-girl interactions among teens center around “relationships.” So if you tell people you went on a date with Person A one week and then went on a date with Person B a couple weeks later, they might think that you’re cheating on Person A or that you’re just promiscuous. So what do you do?
Well, you could try to educate people and change their attitudes and judgments (maybe show them the “Dating” section in For the Strength of Youth), or you could go ahead and date the way you’ve been counseled to date and just ignore everyone else’s comments. One thing is certain: you should make sure everyone knows what your standards are, regardless of whether you date or not. There should be no question about your character. Then, if you decide to date, people will be less likely to whisper.

One girl I know threads this needle by not using the word “date.” You go do something with a friend, maybe kiss him, but you don’t date him. “Dating” is now what used to called “steady dating,” so don’t use outdated language. Keeping up with language changes is only part of the problem, though, and the understanding of our surrounding culture permeates even into LDS homes. When one of my sons invited a 16-year-old LDS girl to go to a show with him, her response was, “I’m not ready for a relationship.” His stunned, unvoiced reaction was that he hadn’t proposed a relationship, but the girl’s confusion is all too easy to understand. Maintaining a culture at odds with the surrounding one is hard work. (In all that I’ve observed on this topic, it is also clear that girls are the ones establishing the norms and interpretations, and boys try to figure out what those are or retreat to their computer games.)

A damper on teenage dating wouldn’t be so terrible, except that the teenagers become young adults handicapped in their ability to become acquainted with potential romantic partners by dating them. Proposing or accepting a date is now a commitment to more than a few hours together; it is a declaration of an exclusive relationship. I’ve heard this is even the case at BYU. Elder Oaks famously admonished young unmarried men to get away from the crowd and spend some time alone with a woman. For those of us a few decades past such cares, it was surprising that such counsel from an apostle should be needed, but we weren’t wrestling with the same obstacles that our successors do today. My wife’s default stance was to accept all date invitations unless there was a good reason not to. Her reasoning was that you don’t really know people until you’ve spent some time together. Boyfriends and girlfriends choosing own another before they have spent time together will have shallower information at act with.

There is no reason to think 20th Century American dating should continue as the one true way to prepare youth to court a marriage partner, but if it is to disappear, it will need a replacement. Perhaps the calling of mission presidents, or better yet their wives, needs to be formally expanded to include a matchmaker role over those leaving full-time proselytizing. Calling stake betrothal specialists is another possibility.

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