Among the stranger aspects of American culture is our habit of waiting until marriage to begin a course in relationship education. Engaged couples who practice certain religions, like Catholicism or Judaism, and who want to be married in a religious ceremony, must attend a premarital counseling course. The intention is to evaluate maturity and reduce marital dissatisfaction or divorce. Yet, if we really want to alter the divorce rate, relationship education should begin decades earlier, in elementary school. In fact, if we want to reduce any of the following—health problems related to risky sexual behavior, teen pregnancy, eating disorders, alcohol and drug addiction, homicide, suicide, bullying, dating and domestic violence, or school dropout rates—we need mandatory relationship-education courses in elementary and high schools. Many young people make poor personal decisions in part because they lack the core relationship skills necessary to handle life.
School-age children need age-appropriate relationship-education courses that teach about feelings, friendship and fitting in:
Feelings: It’s important for children to learn to identify and name the emotion they feel. We want children to understand that an emotion is energy that offers information. Emotions provide insight into what is happening in our lives. Children need to understand that suffering and healing is life’s natural rhythm. Emotions come and go, so even painful emotions will eventually leave. Let’s teach children that it’s smart to ask for help from trusted adults when help is needed. And, if that adult is not supportive, let’s teach children how to keep asking other trusted adults until support is provided. Good communication skills are key.
Friendship: Children need to know that a true friend accepts us, is available and generous, brings out the best in us, and is loyal and honest. Friends can be professional (teacher and student) or unprofessional (peer to peer). Let’s teach children that it’s natural for friends to enter and exit our lives. Relationship education would include how to end a friendship that is no longer healthy and how to deal with unkindness and bullying, even from adults.
Fitting in: Elementary-school education often emphasizes conforming to a given norm, but it’s also important to celebrate how a child stands out. If a child’s innate genius is honored in elementary school, it will flourish. That grounding allows a child to grow into an adult capable of the creativity, innovation, resilience and productivity that can solve problems in society and industry.
Relationship education is even more essential for teenagers. A teen’s relationship skills predict his or her future success more accurately than the SAT or other academic exams. Teens need to learn about identity, intimacy and isolation (more about that on my blog at www.joeygarcia.com). If we want innovation, intelligence and resilience to rise in our communities, it won’t come from any current trends in elementary or high-school education. Relationship education is the answer to the personal and social problems that concern us.