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Teaching About Romantic Love


The article: “Preparing Students for Romantic Relationships” by Richard Weissbourd, Amelia Peterson, and Emily Weinstein in Phi Delta Kappan, December 2013/January 2014 (Vol. 95, #4, p. 54-58),; Weissbourd is at
“What is more important in our lives than learning how to have mutual, caring, romantic relationships?” ask Richard Weissbourd, Amelia Peterson, and Emily Weinstein (Harvard University) in this important Kappan article. Yet schools do precious little in this realm, and parents struggle when it comes to having meaningful conversations with their teens.
A high-school girl was quoted in a 2011 New York Times article saying, “As a society, we always tell kids, ‘Work hard, just focus on school, don’t think about girls or guys – you can worry about that stuff later, that stuff will work itself out,’ but the thing is, it doesn’t.”
The cost of this neglect is profound: teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, substance abuse, depression, and many other adolescent problems can be traced back to anxiety and failure in romantic relationships, not to mention an appalling amount of misogynistic language and sexual harassment.
In addition, say Weissbourd, Peterson, and Weinstein, “Failure to prepare young people for healthy love and sex can reverberate destructively throughout their lives” – in marital conflict and misery, domestic abuse, divorce, the inability to form relationships, workaholism, and alcohol abuse.
Into the vacuum left by parents and schools surge pornography, images and songs that objectify and debase women, and cultural myths about romantic love – that “real love” is an instant attraction, an intoxication, an obsession.
“For adults to hand over responsibility for educating young people about love and sex to popular culture is a dumbfounding, epic abdication of responsibility,” say the authors. “[Y]oung people want and need many uncontroversial, vital forms of relationship and sex education. When it comes to relationship education, it is, in fact, possible to find a great deal of common ground across the usual political divides.”
Sex education, whether its theme is abstinence-till-marriage or abstinence-plus-information-about-contraception-and-safe-sex, is basically “disaster prevention,” say Weissbourd, Peterson, and Weinstein. It usually includes some guidance on how to prevent pregnancy and STDs, and is taught once or twice in the secondary-school years, often by untrained teachers.
This approach is driven by a series of distorted images of American adolescents: horny kids bouncing recklessly from one “hook-up” to another; casual and exhibitionistic about their relationships; incapable of distinguishing between sex and love; uninterested in true intimacy. It’s not surprising, then, that most sex education courses have little or no effect on young people’s attitudes.
“Some teens and young adults we have spoken with simply view their sex education courses as ridiculous and stupefyingly distant from their daily hopes, questions, and fears,” say the authors. So where do kids get information? Peers, older siblings, older peers, and, of course, the media and the Internet.
Weissbourd, Peterson, and Weinstein have conducted in-depth interviews with 16-20-
year-olds in a number of high schools and colleges, and what they learned suggests the need for a very different approach. Contrary to the myths, only 10-15 percent of high-school and college students are having sex with multiple partners; the other 85-90 percent are interested in hanging out with friends on Saturday night and being involved in an intimate romantic relationship.
“The real crisis is not young people hooking up recklessly; it’s our miserable failure as adults to provide young people with even rudimentary forms of meaningful guidance on how to develop gratifying, mature, respectful sexual and love relationships,” say the authors. Their interviews revealed that kids are looking for guidance on what true love is, how to form mature relationships, how to do the “work” in a relationship, how to avoid getting hurt, and how to break up when things don’t work out.
One Boston-area high-school teacher said that students have an insatiable desire to talk about this subject: “They’re much more present, thoughtful, available to themselves when they talk about love. I always feel bad when we have to move on to another topic.”
“One way to develop these capacities is to provide students with various examples of caring, vibrant romantic relationships,” say Weissbourd, Peterson, and Weinstein, “showing how thoughtful, self-aware adults deal with common stresses and challenges. (One can imagine students watching and discussing, for instance, the compelling, mature marriage of the main couple on the TV show “Friday Night Lights.”)
It would encourage students to reflect on the many forms of love – ‘There are as many loves as there are hearts,’ Tolstoy says – and develop their thinking about how to distinguish immature from mature love and how to parse the myriad forms of attraction, infatuation, and love.
Done well, these conversations can respond to students’ underlying anxieties, help them avoid badly wounding and even scarring each other, and improve their abilities to develop and maintain a wide range of relationships.
Further, reflecting on romantic and sexual relationships can help students develop important academic skills and may be the most powerful way to teach young people ethics – far more effective than the typical forms of character education in high school and college – because ethical issues in romantic relationships meet teens exactly where they are emotionally.” For example:
- What do I do if I know my friend is cheating on his girlfriend who is also my friend?
- Is infidelity justified under any circumstances?
- Is it exploitation when a senior dates a freshman?
There are also opportunities in the regular curriculum to get into conversations about romance and love, say the authors. History, literature, and social studies are prime territory, as well as after-school programs and athletic teams. “Sports coaches especially need guidance on talking about romance and love,” say Weissbourd, Peterson, and Weinstein, “given how commonly they’re viewed as mentors by the more than 40 million children who play organized sports and given how frequently they hear low-minded talk among boys about girls and expressions of homophobia on buses and in locker rooms.”
A small number of U.S. programs have moved in this direction, including Love U2: Increasing Your Relationship Smarts and The Art of Loving Well. Other countries, including Norway, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, are implementing promising programs. It’s vital to develop high-quality curriculum and provide the training and online support needed for programs to take root.
Summary reprinted from Marshall Memo 519, 13 January 2014.

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