Dating & Cultural Differences


Sixteen-year-old Elena starts dating a boy who has a different ethnic and religious background than her own. Her mother knows she is supposed to be open-minded, but the boy’s family and their traditions are so unfamiliar, she finds herself feeling afraid for Elena’s future.


As our communities become more multicultural and children’s lives become more global, many parents are being faced with the possibility of their children being involved in relationships that may look very different than they ever had. Dealing with cultural diversity not only relates to race, religion, cultural and ethnic differences, but to socioeconomic differences, as well.


Most parents hope their children will have many different relationships before they become “serious” and chose someone as a life mate. They hope their teens learn something from each relationship that will help them get clearer about the person they will want to marry.


Early Dialogue


It’s wise to start talking with children about differences in relationships without any reference to “dating” before they reach adolescence. Focus on family “styles” and how they impact marriage to help open up lines of communication early about cultural differences.


Remember, too, that these differences can include financial viewpoints, educational beliefs and vacationing styles, as well as political differences. A lot of parents find it helpful to use their own dating experiences as examples and talk about how cultural differences may have affected their marriage early on. Bringing cultural differences into issues that are part of daily living clarifies the numerous points that couples must deal with when they are dating.


Once talking about differences in relationships is fair game with a teen, parents can begin to talk to their child about cross-cultural dating, marriage and families. Discuss how there are challenges and rewards, hardships and joy in every relationship. Parents should be open about their fears based on the struggles they’ve witnessed people they know go through first hand.


Talk about the dating relationships a teen sees at school is a good idea, too. Parents are wise to listen carefully as their teen talks about what works and what kids seem to struggle with as they develop a relationship. If a child already is dating, can ask what his or her friends say about the girlfriend or boyfriend. It’s important to know what kind of support (or lack of) a teen has among peers.


Unconditional Support


As I have watched my oldest son start dating seriously, both religious and cultural differences have been part of the struggles in his relationships. It broke my heart as I heard his confusion when his first girlfriend’s parents told her she couldn’t date my son due to our religion. He couldn’t understand someone judging him based on beliefs, instead of who he was as a person. It was a long and painful year before they both gave up on the relationship. The negative pressure from her parents wore them both down.


Our role as parents changes as children grow. When they are young, we take a more active role in setting limits and encouraging them to go slow in their friendships and relationships. And, if we believe they are on the verge of making a big mistake, we might set boundaries and consequences. But we also know to take these steps carefully, because our good intentions can backfire and draw two unmatched people together in an alliance in order to prove someone else (usually us parents) wrong.


As children mature, our role is more delicate. When we are fearful about their choices as they date, we want to keep the channels of communication open. We get to actively listen to them, and create the opportunities for them to hear their own fears and concerns, as well as hopes and joys.


Our focus is on being open to the new possibilities this relationship may bring and taking the time to support our children’s dreams. We can listen to our fears without projecting them on our children. If the relationship gets serious, we can check to see if they are ready to meet the challenges their differences will bring and ask how we can help them. Loving our children takes many forms.


Claudia Arthrell, a marriage and family therapist, has been married over 30 years and has raised two sons. She has been helping parents through her articles and TV appearances over the past 15 years.