Several years ago, my wife, Emma, and I shamelessly stole a parenting idea from a friend and incorporated it into the life of our family. In the years since, it’s become a valuable and enjoyable part of our parenting. Our kids have benefited, and so have we. It’s easy, affordable, and effective. We’re eager to commend it to you: we take our kids on dates.
“The Bible’s vision of the parent-child relationship is one in which parents know their children well.”
In our family, dates are special, planned, enjoyable times shared between one of us and one of our kids. We love including our children in service projects and missional ventures, but those are different from a date. Emma and I also regularly do ordinary activities with one or another of our children (running to the store, for example), but those aren’t dates either. A date is special. Our dates are usually planned rather than spontaneous, because much of the joy and bonding comes in the anticipation and scheming together about what we’ll do.
There are times when Emma or I get one of our kids alone to have a necessary, serious (perhaps painful) conversation, but that’s not a date. A date is designed specifically to be enjoyable. And although Emma and I often enjoy activities with all of our children together, those aren’t dates, either. A date is one-on-one time between one of us and one of our kids.
Why We Date Our Kids
The Bible’s vision of the parent-child relationship is one in which parents know their children well. They’re aware of what will provoke and discourage their kids, and they avoid such things (Colossians 3:21). Instead, they provide wise instruction and training (Proverbs 1:8–9; 22:6) as well as corrective discipline (Proverbs 13:24; 29:15). In this vision of parenting, parents are compassionate (Psalm 103:13) and tender (Psalm 131:2). They provide for their children (2 Corinthians 12:14) and are deeply invested in their lives, spending lots of time with them (Deuteronomy 6:6–7), having significant conversations about God (Psalm 78:4), and answering their questions (Joshua 4:20–24).
We long to have that kind of relationship with our children, and yet we’re all too aware of how difficult it is to attain and sustain. We know parents who communicate sparsely and awkwardly with their kids, neither of them sure what to say to the other. On the other hand, we know parents who can discuss just about anything with their children, parents whose kids are eager to seek counsel or a listening ear. There’s clearly no magic formula for being among the latter group. But there are some things we can do to create pathways for deepening communication and connection with our children. Going on dates with them is one of the best ways we’ve found of establishing regular, unforced rhythms of below-the-surface conversations.
How We Date Our Kids
We’ve found that planning for our dates is crucial — if we don’t plan and schedule them in advance, they simply don’t happen. Finding the right pace also has been important; one per month is about right for us. We have three children, which means that if Emma or I take one of them on a date each month (Emma one month, me the next), over the course of a year we’ll each go on two dates with each of our kids.
There’s a schedule hanging inside a cupboard door in our kitchen, which means the kids know well ahead of time when their month is approaching. They’re excited! We decide together where we’ll go and what we’ll do. We tend to choose activities that foster interaction — a trip to a bookstore, coffeeshop, pottery class, mini-golf course, Frisbee golf course, museum, ballgame, or restaurant for dinner. We’re not extravagant in spending — about $25 is usually enough to cover the entire date. Nonetheless, allocating time and money communicates to our kids that we see our time together as a priority. They know we actually enjoy spending time with them, and that’s the best possible context for healthy communication.
Although we don’t advertise this to our children, in the course of each of our times together we pursue four topics of conversation: friends, faith, fears, and family (the four Fs). Of course, the conversation may go in unexpected directions — that’s good! But we want to at least touch base on these four important areas, so we seek to guide the conversation naturally toward how they’re doing socially, with friends at church or school. We speak about our own faith and ask them about their walk with God — perhaps what they’re learning at church or in our family devotions, or questions they have about God. If there’s anything they’re anxious about, fearful of, or struggling with, we want to talk it through together. And we check in on how they’re doing as part of our family, ensuring that our relationships are healthy.
Here’s the key: if we’re not talking with our kids about these kinds of things now while they’re younger, how can we possibly expect to discuss them when our kids are teenagers (or older)? It will seem odd, awkward, perhaps even impossible to suddenly begin talking about topics we’ve never discussed before. When we first began taking our kids on dates, they were all under eight years old. We knew it was unlikely that we’d have any deep, heart-to-heart conversations with them at that age. Our goal was more modest: to prepare the way for fruitful future conversations. We aimed to normalize one-on-one conversations, to make them a staple part of our relationship. As the years have gone by, we see this happening. We’re slowly building the kind of communication for which we long.
I should hasten to add that we’re a normal family and do none of this perfectly. Because we’re busy and have lots of activities, we fairly often get behind by a month or two or three on our dates. Some of our dates have been really exciting (the glass-blowing lesson for Samuel was a big winner, as was the mini-golf with Henry and the horseback riding for Annie) and some have been pretty forgettable (I can’t use them as examples because I don’t remember them).
“Our goal was modest: to prepare the way for fruitful future conversations.”
What matters is not that every date is a huge winner. Instead, it’s the time together and the cumulative effect. Four times a year, year after year, each of our kids gets to spend time with just Mummy and Daddy. They get to plan and discuss where we’ll go and what we’ll do, and then we get to enjoy something together, just the two of us. They experience our focused delight in them and our specific commitment to them.
If you’re a parent of kids who are still in your home, I hope you’ll take this idea from us just as we did from our friend. I pray it will bear the same sweet fruit in your family as it has in ours.