Melissa, 14, had just broken up with her boyfriend, and she couldn’t understand why he had lost interest. I was her school counselor at the time, and she tearfully asked me what she had done wrong. Had she texted him too much? Did she embarrass him when she decorated his locker?
Whether my middle school students have a crush or need help coping with their parents’ divorce, they often ask relationship questions. How do you know whether someone likes you? If a boy is about to break up with you, should you do it first?
I grew up on romantic comedies like “Sixteen Candles,” where a love-struck girl rides off into the sunset with a handsome older boy (who barely knows her name). I absorbed a skewed version of romance rooted in the idea that lasting love is nearly instantaneous. I was surprised when I found out that love often stealthily grows out of friendship.
The media influences may be different today, but the results are similar. If we don’t teach our children about love, the outside world will do it for us. Richard Weissbourd, a child psychologist at Harvard and author of “The Parents We Mean to Be,” urges adults to teach kids how to create mutually respectful, enduring bonds. “We spend an enormous amount of time preparing people for work, but do nothing to prepare them for love,” he says. “We have created this vacuum that TV, film and video have filled, and there are a lot of immature ideas about love.”
When kids learn how to have healthy relationships, the impact is far-reaching. Becky Sipos, CEO of Character.org and a former teacher, notes that young people who can navigate interpersonal minefields are more engaged and productive in school and life. Still, there is no blueprint for teaching kids about love. “Love is the ultimate in recognizing another person has value,” Sipos says.
Love is a difficult, amorphous topic that requires sensitivity, but the answer isn’t to avoid it altogether. Here are six ways parents and educators can prepare children for romantic relationships.
Give them what you’ve got. Many adults have wisdom about love but feel insecure about their ability to advise kids. Weissbourd says, “We need to impart the subtlety, tenderness and focus it takes to develop a meaningful relationship with someone.”
It’s easiest to model a healthy relationship when you’re in one, but parents also can draw on what they’ve learned from good and bad experiences. Whether you are divorced, or married your first love, or have a history of choosing the wrong partners, everyone brings a valuable perspective to the table. Families and relationships take many forms.
Talk with them, not at them. Give kids information in a way that honors their intelligence, says Kenneth Ginsburg, an adolescent medicine specialist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and author of “Raising Kids to Thrive.” They’re making the shift from thinking concretely to thinking abstractly, and lecturing won’t work. When adults actively engage kids in dialogue, they will own their conclusions and be less likely to rebel against the content.
Find a time to have meaningful conversations, and talk about how you fell in love with your partner. What qualities did you admire? Ask kids what love means to them. Thomas Lickona, a developmental psychologist and professor emeritus at SUNY Cortland, suggests reading relationship advice columns together. Before reading the answer, ask kids to share the advice they would give.
Conversations are most effective when adults treat children as the experts in their own lives. “You can still have rules and raise a kid to be safe, healthy and moral while parenting in a mutually respectful way,” Ginsburg says. When adults are compassionate and avoid making assumptions, they model good communication skills. They also increase the likelihood that kids will want to share details about their relationships. Nothing parents say will be more important than what they model, Ginsburg says.
Start by teaching friendship skills. Friendship is good practice for romance. Like love, it requires kindness, empathy and considering someone else’s perspective. Discuss friend choices, touching on topics like dependability and generosity. Kids will absorb many ideas about love through interactions with these same peers. Parents can teach kids about their ethical obligations to each other by posing hypothetical questions: What would they do if their best friend were cheating on a boyfriend? Is it okay for a senior to date a freshman?
Don’t ignore outside influences. The media can be detrimental, but adults can use it to their advantage. By watching shows or movies with children, parents can broach relationship issues without delving into the deeply personal, Ginsburg says. Parents also can talk about love and respect when they hear a song that contains sexist or misogynistic lyrics.
Media literacy is an important skill. Lickona knows one teacher who had students watch a sitcom and log the number of insults. Afterward, the kids discussed how the interactions might impact the characters’ relationships. The Dibble Institute, which helps teens learn healthy relationship skills, provides parents with guided questions to encourage critical thinking about a number of popular teen movies.
The sex talk is important, but it’s not everything. When parents have “the talk,” Ginsburg says it’s about science, not about a healthy way of being. Parents can explain that sex is an act, and when it’s separated from feelings, it’s purely physical. “Lovemaking might include sex and heighten the experience,” he notes, “but it can only take place in a trusting, mutually respectful relationship.”
Healthy sexuality begins with caring about someone. “The beautiful thing about talking about love this way is that it gives kids permission to feel sexual a very long time before they consider actually having sex,” Ginsburg says. “They can feel as if they’re growing up just by holding hands or noticing someone across the room.”
When we focus solely on the mechanics of sex, we also don’t prepare kids for the emotional risks. “We have to let them know that there will be ups and downs and inevitable hurts until they find the right match,” Ginsburg says, and adds that while schools may cover aspects of sex ed, parents have to be talking about integrity, reciprocity and honesty at home.
Children also need to understand that powerful chemistry doesn’t necessarily translate into good relationships. Love is much more nuanced.
Schools can play an important role. “We need to be really intentional about teaching these relationship tenets anywhere there’s a natural segue in the curriculum,” says Julie Frugo, head of Premier Charter School in St. Louis. To do that, we need to build educators’ empathy and comfort with the topic. “We help teachers understand what’s going on in this age group cognitively, socially and emotionally so they can develop authentic, trusting relationships with kids,” she says. “Yes, they may be 12-year-olds breaking up with their boyfriends, but it’s real, in-the-moment heartbreak for them.”
Frugo’s school offers separate electives for boys and girls that delve deeper into relationships than traditional sex ed. The middle school counselor teaches the girls this course, in which students might discuss how to handle a controlling boyfriend who demands to see them when they want to do something else. A male administrator teaches the boys’ class, which similarly breaks down relationships.
History and literature also present opportunities to learn about love. “When I taught Romeo and Juliet,” Sipos says, “I had my students read a scene and share how they might rewrite it to achieve a better result.”
One morning last year, my husband watched me steel myself for a rough day at work. When I got home, it took him about three seconds to gauge my level of misery and figure out what I needed. It was a mind-reading feat that would have been impossible when we first started dating as teens. There is no language to describe that type of relationship shift. In our culture, we have only one word, love, to describe a continuum of emotional states and experiences.
Weissbourd thinks that’s confusing and limiting. “When I said ‘I love you’ to my wife on my wedding day, it meant something different than it does now. I may not be vibrantly excited about her every single day, but it’s dazzling in a quiet way.”
If we want our kids to enjoy the full extent of that gift, we need to teach them how to take those first giddy, tentative steps toward love.
Phyllis L. Fagell is the school counselor at the Sheridan School in Washington and a licensed clinical professional counselor at Chrysalis Group Inc. in Bethesda. She tweets @pfagell.
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