Navigating love and relationships can be difficult at any age, but especially so in the angsty teenage years. Budding romances can be fun and exhilarating but also confusing and uncomfortable. In these moments of confusion, teens often turn to friends or the internet for advice. But what if teens were trained with other options? What if lessons in love and romance were taught more explicitly in schools and at home?
It turns out that teens are yearning for these lessons. They're looking for more guidance from parents on emotional aspects of romantic relationships — everything from “how to develop a mature relationship” to “how to deal with breakups,” according to a survey by the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common project.
“Our data is showing a lot of kids do want to have this conversation,” said Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist who co-authored the study of the 18- to 25-year-olds. He said that teachers and parents should be establishing themselves as experts on mature relationships and, in turn, creating an environment in which teens feel comfortable seeking advice about those experiences.
“There are a huge amount of mistakes and misunderstandings that go on here on a daily basis, and good sex education can really help with that," he said.
The majority of us have experienced lessons on human anatomy and pregnancy prevention in school, but what Weissbourd is referring to when he says “good sex education” goes beyond the basics.
Health educators like Shafia Zaloom are trying to create a more holistic approach to sex ed by teaching lessons in love and intimacy. She teaches a six-week course at the Urban School of San Francisco that follows the lifespan of a romantic relationship. The curriculum she has developed encompasses human sexuality and personal integrity with specific lessons in topics like sexual orientation, consent, good sex and pleasure.
“I teach it because human relationships are one of the most important aspects of our lives. The quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives,” she said. “Authentic connection matters and makes a difference. The focus of my work has always been on social justice and equity as well. There’s a lot of work to do with this in the realm of sex education.”
One of Zaloom's students, a 15-year-old boy, says his favorite part has been learning about the nuance of consent. In one class, students watched and analyzed a sex scene from the movie “Super Bad.” He says that activity opened up his eyes to how media can alter our perception of reality.
“When I watch movies, I usually don't think in my head if it's consensual or not, I just go with it, but looking back on it, I'm like, ‘Oh wait, that's not consensual, I don't know why he's doing that,’” he said. “You got to be taught those things, you can't just be influenced by the things you see in the movies, you need to learn about it in real life.”
Zaloom acknowledges that, as an adult, initiating these conversations with teens can be nerve-wracking. Her advice is to: “Pace yourself. Have lots of smaller conversations (vs. the BIG TALK) over time that scaffolds the learning.”
Below are a handful of additional tips from educators and researchers on how to effectively teach about love, consent and emotional intelligence.
Create a safe space
Matthew Lippman is a high school English teacher at Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. A few years ago, he began teaching a course called MEMOIR: LOVE.
“The first thing is that you want to really set up a space that is safe and that will be, at times, uncomfortable. Super uncomfortable,” said Lippman. “Trust the kids. They know what they are talking about in big and deep and meaningful ways. I think it is very important to let them, in their own way, guide the conversation. This means that ‘getting out of the way’ is really important.”
Talk about your own romantic relationships
Tackling these conversations with teens can be intimidating, especially if you’ve never done it before. For starters, Weissbourd suggests developing go-to language. One way to do this is to talk about your own relationships. Even if they didn’t last forever, there can be value in learning about failed relationships.
Here are some questions to ask yourself as you begin teaching teens about romantic relationships: What was healthy about my relationships? What was unhealthy? If they were troubled in some way, why did they become that way? What attitudes or behaviors would you change if you could? Were there warning signs in your relationship or concerning qualities in your partner that you should have seen or taken more seriously?
“It’s often helpful to discuss these questions with trusted friends or to consult experts. Share with your teens any lessons you’ve learned about the skills, attitudes and sensitivities that it takes to maintain a healthy romantic relationship or any close relationship,” the Harvard study suggests.
Facilitate conversations about ethical decision-making
What do I do if I know my friend is cheating on his girlfriend, who is also my friend? Is infidelity justified under any circumstances? Is it exploitation when a high school senior hooks up with a first-year student? These types of questions can engage teens in lively conversation — and help them formulate their own opinions about how to handle complicated situations. It also helps students gain perspective, especially when they’re dissecting these hypothetical situations with the opposite sex.
One 15-year-old girl who took Zaloom’s class said the course gave her communication tools and helped her establish her own moral compass.
“Knowing my priorities and values before going into situations taught me how to interact with people,” she said. “Not just a value for relationships ... life in general. It’s really applicable to everyday life and how I can go through life with an open mind and always willing to hear from other people.”
Create empathy through perspective exercises
When teaching about consent, building empathy is imperative, says Zaloom.
“The social science shows through research that the only one common piece people who perpetrate assault share is a lack of empathy,” said Zaloom. “Empathy is the foundation of one's capacity to have healthy and caring relationships, to truly respect someone. Needless to say, we talk a ton about empathy.”
One way to do this is to have kids interact, share experiences and listen to each other. For instance, one lesson teaches kids how to ask someone out. Students explain to each other what they're attracted to and how various scenarios make them feel.
“It’s really great advice, actually,” said Zaloom's 15-year-old male student. “It was really interesting hearing about the other gender. … I didn't understand how important confidence is to a girl — being confident but not being too dominant and not being a jerk.”
Teach about different kinds of love
Infatuation. Romance. Jealousy. Unconditional love. There is nuance in love, and educators say this is important for kids to understand, especially when they’re feeling these emotions for the first time. In Lippman’s course on love, he said students “read and talked and wrote about love in all of its forms and iterations” because “it is one of these topics that lives in everything.”
This is when talking about your own experiences with love and dating can be beneficial. Weissbourd puts it like this: "When I said I love my wife on our wedding day, that was something different than when I say I love her now. The love I have for her now is deeper and more dazzling but it's quieter. it's not intoxication in the same way. We don't talk about these different types of love."
Use pop culture and other forms of media as models
When looking to incorporate forms of media into your own class, Lippman says, “I find that music is a great literature and one that really speaks to the kids. The most important thing is to be relevant.”
Here’s a list of his favorite teaching materials, including books, poetry and music:
- Rainer Marie Rilke’s Letters To A Young Poet
- Matthew Dickman and Tracy K. Smith's poetry
- Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams
- Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist.
- W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe
- Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”
- U2’s “One”
Ultimately, says Zaloom, remember that the majority of sex education is about values. "Many parents are already teaching about values. Now the challenge is to guide kids to understand what those values sound, look and feel like within the context of sexuality."