- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 13, 2009

Who knows where the debate on health care reform will be by today, but tucked inside the Senate bill is a small but revolutionary provision that, if enacted, could change the national conversation on teens and sex.

The provision, located in the section on “adult preparation,” would funnel millions of dollars to “relationship education.”

Why is that revolutionary?

Because teaching relationship skills would elevate the focus of sex education about 2 feet, from below the belt to the essential sex organ, i.e., the brain.

Aren’t you ready for a change? The kids certainly are.

These days, “if you teach 25 kids about sex and protection, … they will say, ‘Yeah, I know all that,’” Kay Reed, executive director of Dibble Institute for Marriage Education, told me not long ago.

What kids want to know is how to create sustainable, enjoyable, committed and loving relationships, she said.

Recent research from Child Trends shows (again) that young Americans “still aspire to, if not marriage, then certainly a long-lasting committed partnership,” Ms. Reed said. It’s also clear they don’t know how to get there.

“So this research we have on how to create sustained, healthy partnerships” is linked to their own desires, she said. “It isn’t cramming anything down people’s throats; it’s giving them the tools they need to get where they want to go.”

What about lectures on sex and “plumbing”?

There’s certainly a time and place for that, as well as classes on work force development and teen-pregnancy prevention, Ms. Reed said. “But if we ignore the romantic lives of young people, then all those other things we try to do will just be so easily torpedoed,” she said. Kids need to learn “emotional and social intelligence,” but that’s what’s often missing in sex education.

Marline Pearson, a college professor in Madison, Wis., and renowned author of relationship-skills curricula, sees a two-stage process for educating youths about relationships.

When teens are young and still thinking as individuals, they can get a basic education about all kinds of relationships, she said. Later, when they are more likely to be dating or in a romantic relationship, they will be ready for classes about couples.

The beauty of relationship education is that it not only teaches kids what to go for, but also how to avoid dangerous situations, i.e., domestic violence and sexual abuse, Ms. Pearson said. In fact, unless people “have a real clear sense of healthy relationships,” they “probably can’t make good sexual decisions.”

Ms. Pearson’s curricula, sold by Dibble Institute, includes “Love Notes” and “Relationship Smarts Plus” for teens, and “Within My Reach” for adults.

She says she has seen students become motivated to change their behavior. For instance, many young women have said they are going to live by the “six-month rule” after taking the adult relationship class. This means no sex for the first six months of a relationship, so the “love chemicals” can settle.

“They are saying, ‘We’re going to work on the friendship part first. I’m going to get to know [him] first, and I’m going to make a clear decision, and not just slide into sex again,’” Ms. Pearson said.

Ms. Reed and Ms. Pearson are obviously true believers in relationship education, and after my lengthy investigation into all kinds of sex education curricula, I think they are on the right path.

Maybe when Alfred Kinsey walked the earth, sex was hush-hush and Americans needed fairly explicit sex education. Today’s children, however, live with the hypersexualized media and Internet. What they don’t see nearly enough — at home, in school, in their neighborhoods, in the media — are people enjoying normal, happy, healthy relationships.

An educational approach like “Love Notes,” which explains “the chemistry of love,” a “scale of maturity” and “what makes a great relationship” is a welcome change. And if federal funding accelerates its entrance into schools and communities, more power to it.

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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