Teen-agers discuss marriage, divorce, and family life

IN an earlier article, delegates to the recent National Association of Student Councils conference in Bethel Park, Pa., shared views on their country. Now they turn to the family, its current crises and enduring value. Growing up with just one parent in the home, while difficult at times, is far from all bad, says Mark Strickland, a thoughtful high school senior from Springfield, Ohio.

``Everyone should experience something like a single-parent family sometime,'' he says, a look of dead earnest in his blue eyes. In his view, ``it makes you be an achiever'' and forces you to make your own decisions.

Mark's parents were divorced some years ago, something that has ``definitely averted me from marriage,'' he says. ``I'll examine it more closely before I get into it.'' People were put into a kind of limbo by the ``sexual revolution'' of the 1960s, he continues. Everyone did what they wanted to and family life suffered.

``People say, `Do your own thing,' but there must be some sacrifice in a relationship,'' he sums up.

Mark was among 1,100 high school students who gathered here for the annual conference of the National Association of Student Councils. Many of these young people have had very traditional home lives; others, like Mark, have lived through some of the problems that beset the American family today. All of those interviewed were sharply aware of these problems -- divorce, two-wage-earner homes, and a lack of trust between parents and children -- and ready to share their views.

A lot of the ``old values'' related to the family remain very important, says Greg White, a student from Reading, Pa. Accordingly, divorce is ``not ideal, but it should be an option,'' he believes, adding that a problem with divorce is that ``sometimes people forget the impact on others.''

Since the '60s, millions more Americans have opted to live together without formal vows, either as a chosen life style or as a prelude to marriage. None of the students interviewed here condemned that idea outright. It's ``not that big a deal,'' says Greg Abbott from Manhattan Beach, Calif. ``And it's better than just jumping right in [to marriage].'' Shelley Newlin of Sewickley, Pa., asserts, ``It's sure better than getting divorced.''

Some had reservations about living together, however. ``Society accepts this, but I'm not sure the Bible does,'' observes Pat Mixon, another native of Springfield, Ohio. He says religious values would have to enter into any decision he'd make: ``I'd have to arrive at my own interpretation of what the Bible says.''

Dayle Connor, from Bethel Park, knows she would not want to live with someone before marriage. She suspects it would take the ``thrill'' out of marriage. ``I want to experience being a newlywed,'' she says.

And once marriage is decided on, what about the responsibilities of raising children at a time when mothers as well as fathers are likely to be wage earners?

As a general policy, says Mike Sievert, a student from Canton, Ohio, ``one parent should be with the children until they go to school.'' That view is echoed in interviews with many of Mike's peers here. Cara Beadling, a Bethel Park student, carries the point a bit further: ``Parents are often too interested in themselves and their careers to take the time they should with their kids.''

``Shipping [the kids] off to day care'' may be a necessity for some, she says, but it may also reflect self-centeredness on the parents' part.

Shelley Newlin, who looks to a career and a later marriage, concurs that one parent should stay at home with very young children. ``But it wouldn't necessarily be me,'' she quickly adds.

Relatively few of these students have had sex education or family-life courses in school. Among those who have, the views on their usefulness are somewhat split. Mike Sievert, who took a mandatory six-month sex ed class in eighth grade, says, ``Naw, I didn't consider it useful at all.''

One problem was the course's timing. ``I think that eighth grade is too late,'' he asserts. In his view, seventh grade might be better, since that's when a lot of people first start thinking about dating.

Dayle Connor agrees, and in fact would push the courses back to the sixth grade. But overall, ``most people appreciate it,'' she says, and ``many learn a lot whether or not they want to admit it.''

In any case, says Heather Eckart, from the Indiana town of Corydon, the educational effort along these lines ``needs to start with the family.''

So how can communication and trust be fostered within the home? It comes down to the basics of ``just saying you care a lot,'' according to Patrick Perry of Cumberland, Maine. ``My dad hugs me -- sometimes at the wrong time,'' he says with a laugh. But though he may be a bit embarrassed once in a while by his father's show of affection, he's always ``glad.'' Such warmth creates an atmosphere of trust, he says.

Patrick recalls an early lesson in responsibility. ``I vacuumed the house every week when I was very little,'' he says. One day, however, ``I got a little angry and asked, `Why am I doing this?' '' His parents sat him down and explained it was part of taking responsibility, part of contributing to the life of the family.

The point, says Kurt Alme, from Miles City, Mont., is that kids respond to trust. ``Let them experience responsibility,'' he says, don't just talk to them about it.

Second of two articles on the views of high school students who attended the recent annual conference of the National Association of Student Councils in Bethel Park, Pa. The first article appeared in the Home & Family section July 11.

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