Trying to teach kids about love, sex, and protecting the heart

Family Matters

March 07, 2004|By Susan Reimer

MARLINE PEARSON wants to change the way we teach kids about sex.

At a point in the culture wars where the abstinence-only people and the safe-sex people cannot speak to each other, Pearson offers a provocative alternative:

Let's talk about protecting the human heart.

Instead of simply urging kids to wait to have sex until they are married, the Wisconsin educator wants to teach kids how to make that marriage work.

And instead of demonstrating how to use a condom and showing grisly pictures of what can happen if you don't, Pearson wants to help kids form a vision of what a meaningful relationship looks like.

To that end, she has developed a curriculum called Love U2: Getting smarter about relationships, sex, babies and marriage.

It is what she uses in her classes at Madison Area Technical College, but she says that can be late in the game to be talking to young people about smart relationships.

It should be part of high school health curriculums and parts of it could be taught in middle school, too, she says.

"I've seen too many times how troubled and unstable relationships can undo the gains young people have made in education, employment, and in their lives," she said at a Washington, D.C., press conference.

"We help with everything -- housing, GEDs, drugs, food, parenting classes, child care, transportation -- only to see it all come apart when they get into a bad relationship."

"We already know the factors and patterns linked to bad relationships," she said. "We don't have to wait for the damage to occur and then mop up."

Pearson said she would take her skills-based approach to relationships into the high schools, and below, because our children aren't born knowing how to sustain a good relationship -- and some children never see one in their own homes or neighborhoods.

Relationship skills are what is missing in sex education, she said.

"We teach young people about sex, but very little about its context -- relationships." Both abstinence-only programs and comprehensive sex education courses fail to provide young people, and especially girls, what Pearson calls a "North Star for their intimate lives."

There is no vision, she says, for good love, meaningful sex, commitment, marriage or the importance of fathers and marriage to children.

She would teach sex in its emotional and social context.

"We need to help teens think through what they want sex to mean, to be aware of the steps of physical involvement and what each step means for their heart, not just their health, then to establish their own boundaries and personal policies on sex."

That is a tall order in today's soulless hook-up culture, where sex is about as special as a phone call. Sex has become something kids just do. It has no romantic meaning, but it still has an emotional price, especially for girls.

And it may have a human price, too, if a pregnancy results. Pearson would also teach what 30 years of social science has learned: marriage matters to children.

Not only do children fare better in households where there are two parents and they are married, but children who are dragged in and out of relationships by a single parent have the worst outcome of any children.

Teens need to learn how to make emotional connections, how to keep good relationships moving forward and how to get out of bad ones because it is clear to Pearson that many of the choices they make as teen-agers are the same choices they will make as adults.

"We can't teach sex as if it stands alone. We have to help these kids put meaning and emotion back into sex," said Pearson.

Then we also have to show them how to protect their hearts from that meaning, and that emotion.

"We need to help the next generation do better," Pearson said.

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