Maybe We're All So Dumb at Love Because They Don't Teach It in School

Relationship skills may be less controversial than sex ed, but they're also less taught.

learning to love
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Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Memorizing the table of elements or the anaerobic process might help you on a couple tests, but learning how to be a good romantic partner is a skill set that serves people their whole lives. Yet love is a topic that has gone missing from American school curricula. Dr. Richard Weissbourd, a child and family psychologist on the faculty of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and School of Education, wants to change this. 

“Divorce has big emotional costs for people and kids, along with financial costs,” Weissbourd says. “There’s domestic abuse and the fact that many adults aren't modeling caring kids. We aren’t preparing kids to have healthy, caring romantic relationships. Schools prepare students for work, but they don’t prepare them for relationships.”

While you can count on sex education to get everyone's underwear in a twist, Weissbourd thinks it might be harder for Republicans and Democrats to argue over whether boys and girls should learn to respect each other and themselves. He says, “I think we could get a lot of agreement on this relationship issue.”

Norway, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand already teach relationship education. In primary school, students are required to take relationship education—learning how to make and maintain friendships. Romantic relationships are taken up in middle or high school.

In recent years there’s been a social-emotional learning movement, known as SEL, to teach students how to manage anger and frustration—to remain calm and stay focused—and it includes some navigation of relationships with peers and adults. Weissbourd says, however, that much of this teaching still doesn’t address romantic relationships, and that’s why new curricula are needed.

Weissbourd argues that divorce, constant marital conflict, and even the inability to form a relationship have a distinct and high human toll on the economy, which loses millions in days of school and work lost. The cost of psychological therapy for couples, individuals, and in some cases, taxpayers is also a financial drain to consider.

“Parents aren’t having this conversation with kids, and schools aren’t either," Weissbourd says. Earlier this year, along with Amelia Peterson and Emily Weinstein, he published a report in the education magazine Phi Delta Kappan about preparing students for romantic love.

They wrote, “Young people often wind up learning about sex and love from their peers, the Internet, or the media. The harm is not simply daily exposure to misogynistic songs, pornography, and other debased images of sex—serious as that harm is. The media also spawns all kinds of misconceptions and reinforces deeply ingrained cultural myths about romantic love—for example, that love is an intoxication, an obsessive attraction, and that ‘real love’ is clear and unmistakable and happens suddenly.”

Teachers throughout the country have told Weissbourd that they see a lot of misogyny in their schools, with boys using the word ho (short for whore) to describe girls. Boys sexually harass girls and use coercion for sex. Girls insult other girls. “I have asked teachers, ‘What do you do if you are sitting in the cafeteria and you hear a group of high school guys talking and one guy says, ‘I hit that last week,’ ” Weissbourd says. “Most of the teachers say they don’t know what to say or even if they have the right to say anything."

A few school districts are beginning to experiment with their role in preparing kids for healthy relationships. In Alabama, some schools are testing an experimental program called "Love U2: Increasing Your Relationship Smarts and the Art of Loving Well.” Created by The Dibble Institute in Berkeley, Calif., the curriculum strives “to increase teens’ confidence and capacity to develop both healthy relationships in the short-term and healthy marriages in the long term.” It also focuses on how to build “positive relationships that don’t include sex.”

From that experiment, The Dibble Institute reports that teens showed “significant improvement” in their knowledge about healthy relationships and marriage. They also reported “significantly lower levels of verbal aggression in their dating relationships after taking the course.” Currently, a longer course is being evaluated in the state in a five-year scientific and rigorous evaluation with more than 5,000 diverse students. Two professors at Auburn University are spearheading the experiment that is funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Even if schools won’t go all in on relationship education, Weissbourd suggests that there should be more online resources for sex educators and parents in order “to increase their confidence, comfort, and skill in guiding children in developing mature relationships and in dealing with specific issues like breakups and cheating.”

He even suggests that English teachers can make a difference if they have the right tools and training to talk about healthy love and relationships when teaching a required text such as Romeo and Juliet. “I’m really making the case that we have to do better than what we are doing,” Weissbourd says. “I’m not saying schools or parents are going to solve this problem. But we need to try to get adults to start talking with each other and with teens about this serious issue."

This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.

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