Parenting Adolescents — 16 April 2006
Should students be taught about love relationships?

Couple therapists often see partners in relationship distress, who feel ill equipped to understand each other or relate well and lament about not having been taught the proper skills. They believe that early interactive lessons about relationships would have spared them their current agony.

In the 1950’s some colleges taught their students about love. It fell in disfavor during the 1960’s and was discontinued. It was perceived as an un-teachable subject, too emotional, non-scientific, rigid and sexist.

During the 1980’s the emphasis of training high school students became a polarized war between those advocating and offering sex education classes as pure biology and those who opted to preach abstinence. Neither group concerned itself with offering a curriculum to improve relationships.

History suggests that the void in interpersonal skills between the sexes may be a partial cause in the increased rate of divorce. Since effective communication is an imperative part of any relationship, and since men and women react differently, it is obvious that learning to understand each other has great value.

Forty years later, the void is finally being partially filled with relationship courses being taught at some colleges and high schools. Some schools now combine sex education, social interaction skills, values, communication tools and basic psychological understanding of human nature and behavior in their relationship curriculum.

It is not surprising to find a high level of students’ interest and participation in these courses as vehicles for self-understanding and social knowledge. Being a guest lecturer at a relationship class at Cabrillo College, I was impressed by the enthusiastic participation, insightful questions and quest for interpersonal understanding exhibited by the class participants. They date, have steady relationships and see the topic as relevant, helpful and personal.

Students are anxious to know how to relate better to each other, how to successfully establish love connections, how to make sense of each other’s conduct and personality and how to succeed in love. Many are particularly propelled by the desire to avoid the traumatic divorce they witnessed their parents endure.

Since many students start dating in high school, it is most appropriate to begin teaching them about relationships at that point. The better able they are to relate, the easier is their transition to adulthood. Adolescence is a very confusing time of self-definition. Learning love relationship skills reduces the teenagers’ awkwardness, increases their confidence and transforms the mystery of relating to manageable skills. Since parents usually do not take the role of tutors in this area, it is imperative that schools do so.

Today, we have greater scientific data about what helps and hurts marriages, how male and female language and needs manifest themselves differently, and even recent evidence of specific hormones’ role in the capacity for good relationship and attachment. Studying love has now regained the respect of many skeptics, who previously dismissed it as an anecdotal, non-universal emotional construct, which cannot be studied or taught. Learning about the myths and facts of love validates young people’s emotions and helps them understand their motivation and decision-making processes in their love connections.

The current knowledge is sufficient to provide young people with science-based tools for greater relationship sobriety.

• Since the family, society’s basic nuclear unit, is currently in crisis, every effort needs to be made to preserve it. Early relationship skills may be helpful in keeping some families intact.
• Since children’s well being is directly correlated to their upbringing, any information that may secure a steadier path for their parents enriches them all.
• A major stated cause for the alarmingly high divorce rate is the inability to relate well to each other. Early relationship training may be one of the best ways to spare some partners the trauma of divorce.
• Increasing emotional intelligence serves both the individual and society well.
• High school and college students are intellectually trained to function well in adulthood yet untrained for interpersonal success.
• Adolescence is confusing enough. Any knowledge that facilitates peer and love relationship may help stabilize the more vulnerable teens and help all others.
• Teenagers who are biologically geared for intimacy are often ready, willing, interested and motivated to know more about relationships. Knowledge empowers them in making better choices.
• Years of absent preparation for human interaction and love maps may have been detrimental to interpersonal success. The new awareness and efforts for training youth for adult bonding is none too soon. Hopefully, the anticipated benefits will indeed enhance the young people, their relationships and society.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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