Harvard study: Children want parents to teach them

About healthy relationships

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As parents, we would like to raise our children to have the capacity to develop caring, responsible relationships at every stage of their lives. In contrast to that desire, recent studies show that most young people are unprepared for caring, lasting relationships and are anxious about developing them. It appears that parents provide them with little guidance, including the key skills that would prepare them for the focused, tender and generous work of learning how to love and be loved.

The good news is that a high percentage of young people would like to have relevant information and meaningful conversations about romantic love. However, when they turn to their parents for that kind of guidance, they find they encounter road blocks. For example, many parents don't see providing guidance on romantic relationships as their role. They might not know what to say. Perhaps they feel unqualified in these kinds of conversations because of their own romantic failures. If any of these reasons are preventing you from talking with your child, it is important for you to remember not only that relationship failures can generate as much wisdom as relationship successes, but also that all adults can distill their wisdom and share it in age-appropriate ways with young people.

What exactly do young people want to know about romantic relationships? A survey carried out by the Harvard Graduate School of Education found that the majority of young people wanted to know about various emotional aspects, including how to have a more mature relationship, how to deal with breakups, how to begin a relationship and how to avoid getting hurt in one. They also wanted to receive more information about other relevant topics, such as how to compromise in a relationship, how to deal with falling out of love, how to wait to have sex and how to deal with cheating. When it gets down to it, they wanted to talk with their parents about "everything."

How can you, as the parent, help to fulfill your child's need to know more about romantic relationships? First of all, go beyond platitudes. Almost all teens know they are supposed to be self-respecting and respectful in their romantic and sexual lives. What they don't know is what this means in different romantic and sexual situations. You can help by identifying for them common forms of misogyny and harassment, such as catcalling and gender-based slurs. On the flip side of the coin, you can also discuss various examples of caring, vibrant, romantic relationships.

Explore the capacities and skills it takes to develop and maintain a healthy, energizing romantic relationship. In order to do this, you might ask such questions as: "Does a relationship make you and your partner more - or less - self-respecting, hopeful, caring and generous?" "What are some examples of healthy and unhealthy relationships in our own family and community? In television and film? What makes these relationships healthy or unhealthy?"

Another thing you can do is to talk about what it means to be an ethical person. Sustained romantic relationships require a person to be ethical. Therefore, being ethical is something he or she needs in order to maintain caring romantic relationships. Teach your child to treat people of different genders with dignity and respect. Support him/her in becoming ethical in this broader sense by connecting discussions about romantic and sexual relationships with misogyny and harassment. Intervene when others are at risk of being harmed. Advocate for those who are vulnerable.

Done well, your conversations with your child about romantic relationships can respond to his underlying fears, help him avoid being wounded and scarred and improve his ability to develop and maintain a wide variety of close relationships. Through them, you will enable your child to grow into an ethical, caring adult. What could be better than that?

For more information: Making Caring Common, mcc.gse.harvard.edu

Contact Shanti, who has a Ph.D. in psychology and is a self-actualization and parenting skills coach, at shanti@barbaraujones.com.

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