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WETZSTEIN: Teens without love role model

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Do black and Hispanic teens have high expectations for romantic relationships? Yes. Do they understand what constitutes a healthy romantic relationship, i.e., trust, honesty, good communication? Yes.

Do they expect to have such romantic relationships themselves? No, not at all, Child Trends researchers said in a recent report based on focus-group responses of 52 black and Hispanic teens in the D.C. area.

Why don't teens expect to have healthy love relationships themselves?

One big reason was that they don't see healthy relationships in the lives of people around them, they said. Not having a dad around was also mentioned by some teens, said the research paper, released last month.

Another reason for the relationship blues was conflicting messages in the mass media.

For instance, just as Aretha Franklin famously declared, men and women in love have got to have some respect for each other, the teens said. But when it came to heartfelt affection, kindness and attentiveness in relationships, the teens chimed in with Tina Turner, who (also) famously asked, "What's love got to do with it?"

In fact, the focus groups showed that black and Hispanic girls were downright cool to the idea of "love" in a romantic relationship. Girls "felt that if respect, loyalty and trust were present, then that would amount to love," the researchers wrote. The girls "rarely" even brought up the idea of love.

Boys, on the other hand, were happy to say they wanted love in a relationship, but they added a clarification: "You say you love them, but you don't really mean it," one teenage boy admitted.

Boys and girls had different ideas about what constituted an exemplary relationship, too.

Girls felt they had it good if their boyfriends didn't cheat and didn't call them names, put them down or speak disrespectfully to them. The girls didn't mention sex, but, for boys, good sex was "one of the top elements" of a good relationship.

The Child Trends report, "Tell It Like It Is: Teen Perspectives on Romantic Relationships," has several other key points, but hopefully I've recounted enough to make you sigh. My intention is not to spread hopelessness, but remind ourselves that, as a nation, we cannot settle for such widespread misery of the heart.

These young people told Child Trends that they aspire to healthy, happy romantic relationships, and they even listed the ingredients for successful relationships, so they have desire and knowledge.

What they lack are living examples - adult role models for healthy love relationships in their homes, their neighborhoods, their schools and communities, and in their mass media.

Over my years of reporting, I have met hundreds of men and women who worked with youth, and understood their power of being a role model and mentor. Sadly, not all these adults presented themselves as role models for love - no one wants to be a hypocrite and all of us are "dinged" one way or another.

But there's strength in numbers, and if ever there was a noble dream to pursue, it would be to help show minority youths how to establish and keep successful, satisfying and lasting love relationships.

The damage could be undone in one or two generations, since most of today's black families had married grandparents. It's not too late.

A good place to start the quest might be the new National Center on African American Marriages and Parenting at Hampton University. One of its purposes is to "fan the embers of hope in men and women for lifelong healthy marriage."

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at

cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.