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April 26, 2006
Column #1,287
Let's Teach Teens About Relationships
by Michael J. McManus

Teen birth rates have fallen by a third over a decade, yet a third of U.S. teen girls still get pregnant.  And half of all first out-of-wedlock births are to teenagers.

Few of those girls will ever marry, and only 30 percent of those who do are in their first marriage by age 40. Their children are the least likely to fare well in school or relationships. Even worse, teens are apt to have a second unwed birth soon after the first.

In fact, 60 percent of girls aged 15 -17 approve of unwed childbearing, and three-quarters of those who are 18 or 19!

What's wrong?

For decades the debate on teen sexuality has been between contraception vs. abstinence. "But neither approach devotes sufficient attention to instructing teens in how to achieve success in their current or future relationships or to exploring how postponing sex might contribute to healthy relationships down the road," asserts an important new report, "Making a Love Connection: Teen Relationships, Pregnancy and Marriage."

Today's teenagers are growing up in a highly charged sexual atmosphere that "bears little resemblance to the world their parents grew up in...bombarded with sexual come-ons and appeals." It is not just omnipresent pornography, but many teens have seen "nothing but relationship failure and breakup in their own families and communities. They have lived through a cycle of troubled relationships, as their mothers and fathers date, cohabit, break up, marry, divorce and remarry," says the study.

Nor have teens have been taught about the advantages of marriage for adults and children. For a decade scholars have agreed that married people are healthier, happier, live longer, wealthier and even have better sex than single, divorced or cohabiting couples.

More importantly, teenagers have not been taught how to achieve a lifelong marriage, which four out five kids say they want. 

They lack knowledge of what might be called "the success sequence: Finish high school, or better still, get a college degree; wait until your twenties to marry; and have children after you marry," argues the report written by Dr. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, Co-Director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University and by Marline Pearson, author of the course, "Love U2: Getting Smarter About Relationships, Sex, Babies, and Marriage."

That course teaches adolescents the characteristics of healthy relationships and marriage, how to communicate effectively and manage conflict, understand what's important to look for in a romantic partner and the nature of crushes and infatuations.

It also helps teenagers learn the value of a "go-slow," low intensity approach so they can gauge the health and safety of a relationship, how to handle sexual pressures and how to enjoy romantic relationships without having sex. Few realize, for example, that brain chemistry enhances the glow of an infatuation and thus increases the taking of foolish sexual risks.

High school sex ed courses do teach the risk of STDs. However, but the consequences of sex often affect not only the individual, but the birth of a child. Every time a teen gives birth, she is making choices for the future of her child.

Yet, rarely are either boys or girls encouraged to reflect upon what a child needs and deserves from the most important adults in their life. "Teens have a strong moral sense. They are deeply concerned about right and wrong, fair and unfair," states the report which was commissioned by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

In her classes with teenagers, Marline Pearson asks kids to pick a number from 1 to 10 on how important they think it is to be brought up by two stable married parents vs. seeing parents "split up" (whether by divorce or abandonment). "Is it a big deal or not?" she asks. Virtually all say the issue is very important and many tell stories about how parental actions hurt them.

This helps kids understand the long-term consequences of waiting till marriage for child bearing.

As I read about America's failure to teach teenagers about how to create and sustain healthy relationships with someone of the opposite sex, I wonder how many church youth groups are also failing to teach these skills. Many, I suspect. This is not just a failure of public education, but of Christian education.

We adults must do a vastly better job of helping teenagers learn to build relationships that can lead to enduring marriages.

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