“We are failing to equip our youth with the ideas, tools, and practices to know how to negotiate their romantic and sexual lives in healthy, nondestructive ways that prepare them to achieve the happy, functional marriages and families that most of them say they want in future years,” said Christian Smith and his co-authors in their book Lost in Transition: The Darker Side of Emerging Adulthood. Professor Alan Hawkins, in our School of Family Life, agrees. He proposes, in fact, that an institutionalization of better relationship education for youth (YRE) is the answer. He provides an argument for it in the Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy.
“The road that links adolescence to adult family life is not a paved interstate,” he says, “with efficient on- and off-ramps, helpful guideposts, and numerous safety features to prevent or cushion mistakes. Youth navigate [it] alone for the most part. In contrast to a few generations ago, society generally takes a hands-off approach to regulating adolescent and young adult romantic relationships. Not surprisingly, then, many young people arrive at their family destinations battered and bruised.
According to Child Trends, a nonprofit research organization focused exclusively on improving the lives and prospects of children, youth, and their families, 80% of young adults surveyed want to get married. However, young adults in general have some of the highest rates of divorce, according to marriage scholar Nick Wolfington.
“Intervening earlier in relationship development, before individuals are committed or perhaps even partnered, has the potential to have an even greater impact on improving relationship quality, reducing divorce rates, and, perhaps most importantly, supporting stable unions for children to grow up in,” said Galena Rhoades and Scott Stanley in their analysis of relationship education.
Hawkins supported this by citing a 2011 study on the evidence of relationship education on high school aged youth: “Overall, [the research] found significant, positive change in students’ relationship skills. These changes were moderated, however, by a number of factors: students in two-parent families showed stronger gains; those in severely economically disadvantaged areas showed little gain; mandated classes produced stronger gains than self-selected classes,” said Hawkins.
Why and How?
Statistics Hawkins cites demonstrate overwhelmingly that teens’ relationship problems often start early. “Prominent scholars argue,” he says, “that romantic relationships in youth are neither transitory nor trivial, but instead have real effects, positive and negative, on adolescent development.” Youth relationship education has the potential to reduce problematic pathways to marriage (e.g., cohabitation, out-of-wedlock childbirth) and increase the success of their relationships, and thus their happiness.
So, if the need is apparent, how does one implement YRE? Hawkins offers the following suggestions:
- Private funders and government entities need to invest more in YRE
- Schools need to be more proactive in providing YRE and must be able to teach all of their students. This can be done by assimilating YRE into required health classes, which have a large reach, as opposed to elective Family and Consumer Science classes
- Religious settings in conjunction with parental involvement are a good place to suggest YRE
- Community programs can incorporate YRE into existing youth programs.
Of Paramount Importance
“If the only thing that you have to offer in a relationship or marriage is your physical appearance, then you are definitely walking on a very thin line,” said Edmond Mbiaka. It takes more than physical beauty to sustain a healthy relationship or marriage.” While there are limits to YRE, statistics show the effectiveness of teaching youth how to form healthy relationships, Hawkins says. Finally, Hawkins suggests that instead of differentiating between YRE and CRE (couple relationship education), people refer to them collectively as simply, RE- relationship education: “Removing the C from CRE clarifies that the field is much broader than providing valued relationship education to intact couples; it encompasses the important work of individually-oriented relationship literacy education for youth and young adults. Perhaps this small change in how we refer to the field will spur greater attention to the need to allocate a greater proportion of our resources to healthy relationship formation for young people, to help them better navigate the challenging roads to forming healthy relationships and stable marriages.”
Do you think we should institute YRE?