As the grandfather of five children, the oldest of whom is now in high school and attending school dances and other social functions, I wonder anew about the status of marriage in modern society. What was once a revered institution has been eroded and derided for decades. Not surprisingly, many marriages end in divorce and many other potential marriages are greatly delayed or never take place at all.

The great dilemma of the adolescent years is that nature supplies young people with sexual urges but without the maturity to keep them under control. That is the job of parents primarily, and secondarily persons in settings where young people congregate, such as schools, churches, clubs or in teams. It is plain that we cannot leave matters entirely up to the children.

No, I am not exaggerating, for in many cases we do exactly that. It's called dating, a custom to which our society has been attached for many years and the advantages of which are seldom doubted, if they are even actually considered. But in such unsupervised situations are multiple temptations and unrealistic expectations.

Leaving adolescents alone - and not just adolescents, we must admit - for long periods of time is to invite involvement in the passionate activities that ungoverned nature beckons them to. It would be unrealistic to expect anything else. But, one might reasonably ask, what is the alternative? Shouldn't young people get to know each other?

As unpalatable as the idea may strike us, there has for centuries been an alternative to this dating game. It is called family, and when the young man and woman are of an age and inclination to enter into a lifelong union, it is called courtship.

No one advocates arranged marriages, the parties to which have no choice in the matter, that being left to their parents. Parents may not have the feelings that their children have, but at least they are more likely to be governed by practical considerations regarding money, property, stability and character.

The family, as well as those associations which are an extension of the family, bridges the so-called "generation gap." Rather than have the children define the nature and extent of the time they spend together, parents should continue to be the major force in their children's lives, even if the children are older and "have minds of their own." If we are honest, we will admit that such minds are not clear but willful.

Nothing illustrates the generation gap more than music. The major market for music these days is children. The main topic of popular songs is love, although it has degenerated into the perversions and worse of vulgarity, abuse and violence. Folk music was once literally the people's music, parents and children together, but has diminished to an ethnic fixation and does not anchor the community as it once did.

To distinguish the childrens' tastes from the parents', whether it is in music or in anything else, is to invite trouble. To grant that is to concede that children have a rational or defensible basis for their untutored, inexperienced judgments, which they don't. But that is precisely what we have done in our acquiescence in unsupervised dating of young people.
Friendship is a beautiful thing, and there is no more beautiful friendship than that between married couples. But friendship is not easily or quickly formed. Childhood friendships sometimes last a lifetime, but those formed in adulthood are based on more mature characters and more formed tastes and judgments.

Thus, it is a mistake to allow teenagers to form sexual liaisons even before they have become friends. Lest anyone be shocked by the frankness of this statement, just reflect on how the automobile has been facilitating couples' embraces for many years. The car has the advantage of being out of the parents' view and therefore perfect for doing what parents - at least most of them - would not permit under their roof.

Unfortunately, there are parents, still teenagers in their minds, who cannot bring themselves to prevent in their children what they did when they were that age. They actually make it easier for hot sessions to occur by saying it's better that kids do this where they are nearby than to "sneak behind their backs."

Better than multiple dating is schooling, religious upbringing and athletic participation, in and through which boys and girls can observe and appreciate each other's admirable character traits, and to form friendships based on those traits. That way they get to know each other's souls before they explore each other's bodies. When romance beckons, it is based on what is solid, and can be sustained until marriage while the parties resist attractive alternatives.

All this may sound terribly old fashioned but sometimes this is more radical than what is usually thought to be avant-garde. Radicalism means going back to the roots. The institution of marriage, and the social customs that support it, are not only older than the dating game but have a much better track record.

ABOUT THE WRITER Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of "Taking Journalism Seriously: `Objectivity' as a Partisan Cause" (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at rhreeb@verizon.net.