Terms of endearment

High-school marriage classes look at the poetic -and the practical

When Granger Simmons first made an appointment to talk with his mother and then started listening to her better, her immediate reaction was not one of pleasure. "She thought there was something wrong with me," he recalls.

But Granger was simply doing his homework - practicing the communication and negotiation skills he was learning in a 10-week marriage-education course offered at his Philadelphia public high school. As far as he's concerned, the class was a great success. "We really get along better now," reports the stylish teenager.

Debates come and go over what schools should teach children in order to prepare them for a successful adulthood. Few would argue with mastery of the three Rs and some physical education. Nor do home economics and shop typically raise eyebrows.

But the movement toward offering marriage education as a natural extension of the curriculum is not being so warmly received.

Treating marriage in a school setting remains uncomfortable for many educators, who operate amid a much larger debate on the appropriateness of teaching students about matters many say are better learned at home.

But others argue that it makes sense to teach students basic skills and to encourage them to think seriously about love and marriage in an era of high divorce rates.

"If schools are to be charged with producing a responsible, productive citizenry, then they have to teach social and emotional skills," says Nancy McLaren, a former high school teacher and one of the developers of "The Art of Loving Well," a popular text used in many marriage-education classes.

Addressing a societal problem

Also, it may make sense to use the public schools to combat a problem that pushes large numbers of single-parent households below the poverty level and fosters emotional and educational problems in many children.

"[Divorce] has become a burden the state has to assume," says Elaine Bloom, a former Florida state representative who in 1998 sponsored a bill that made marriage education a requirement in Florida public schools. "We do have a responsibility to be concerned."

Florida is the only state so far to pass such a law, but a mandate from the governor's office in Oklahoma favors such classes as well, and some experts estimate that at least 2,000 public schools nationwide offer formal instruction on marriage and relationship skills.

The courses vary widely in nature. Some are extremely practical, complete with exercises in living on a limited income and understanding the financial consequences of divorce.

Others are more literary, asking students to ponder poetry and fiction dealing with love and commitment. Most focus, to some degree, on learning to be better communicators.

For professional marriage therapists, there's some question whether public school teachers are qualified to tackle such a topic. The back-to-basics movement can also make it difficult to justify spending time contemplating love and relationships when many children are already scoring too low on standardized math and language-arts tests.

A subject that needs addressing

Yet these are central areas of life in which many children are failing to receive any instruction. "It would be nice if these things could be taught at home, but in many cases their parents don't know this stuff," says Diane Sollee, founder and director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education in Washington. "So how are they going to teach it?"

Ms. Sollee, a former marriage and family therapist, says she wants kids to understand that marriage requires certain skills and "is something you can be good at, you can master."

Most of these classes ask students to consider the meaning of love, and what qualities are important in a partner. Society, Sollee believes, places too much emphasis on "finding the right person," and not enough on understanding that all couples will experience stress and that there are ways to deal with those moments.

At Philadelphia's Martin Luther King High School, an elective marriage-education class has been taught for five years by English teacher Lynn Dixon.

The class is co-sponsored by a local law firm, where the students go to learn about the harsh realities of divorce law and what it's like to go through the process.

But much of the work is done in Ms. Dixon's classroom, with an emphasis on learning to get along with others. Dixon says her students are generally very successful at acquiring negotiation skills.

"They become like little advisers," she says, enthusiastically offering to help resolve conflicts among friends and family wherever they find them.

Dixon, who is twice divorced herself, says the course also helps give students a more realistic set of expectations. Many students find the session on budgeting eye-opening.

"They're absolutely aghast to discover how much Pampers cost," Dixon says. "Some will say later, 'I'm not getting married until I have a house and a car because it's too expensive!' "

Dixon also supplements the class with reading assignments, including poetry, newspaper and magazine articles on marriage and divorce, and the occasional dose of marital advice from Ann Landers.

She favors keeping the class as an elective rather than requiring it, but insists that, taught correctly, it is not out of place in an academic setting. Her course, she says, includes reading, writing, social science, health, and even math assignments that correspond to state academic standards.

But what do you teach?

It is difficult to develop curricula that offend none. The Institute for American Values, a conservative New York-based think tank, evaluated 10 marriage-education courses designed for middle schools and high schools, but gave its approval to only three. It charged that much of the teaching in the rejected courses was too neutral and failed to promote the positive values of marriage.

Yet other, more-liberal groups often complain that material is not sufficiently neutral and springs from the assumption that the nuclear family is the only option for a happy life.

A high school in New Jersey provoked a certain amount of ridicule when it was recently reported in the press that students in a marriage-education class there are planning elaborate mock weddings scheduled to take place next month. Students will rent tuxedos, don white gowns, bake wedding cakes, and walk down a church aisle in a pretend ceremony. It's not an approach generally supported by marriage-education advocates.

"That's so misguided," says Sollee, the therapist. "That's about how to have a wedding. Everybody already knows that. Marriages don't fail because of the weddings."

One criticism, however, that has rarely been leveled at marriage-education classes is that they fail to interest students. In many cases, kids seem to hunger for information and discussion about marriage.

"The biggest problem we have is that kids steal the books and take them home because they want to keep them," says Kay Reed, president of the Dibble Fund for Marriage Education in Berkeley, Calif., which promotes a marriage curriculum called Connections.

"We have workbooks and the kids are so into it, they're always working ahead," she says.

Lessons in communication

Some of the members of Dixon's class eagerly share with a visitor the techniques they have learned for better communications: be specific, take turns speaking, really listen, try to articulate the other person's point of view, don't forget to express appreciation. They say they've employed these techniques with their parents, their friends, and on their jobs.

"If any of us decide to get married, I think we'll be more skilled than somebody who didn't take a class," Naeem Catchings says.

The majority of the students who take her class have experienced divorce first-hand, says Dixon, and put a very high value on not exposing their own children to a similar experience.

Christian Bailey doesn't hesitate about the value of a course on marriage.

"Marriage is one of the main problems in the world today," he says. It's an economic concern, he points out. But there's another reason to study it closely: "It really does a number on kids."

Dispelling some marriage myths

It's rewarding to teach a class on marriage, says Scott Gardner, professor of human development and family studies at South Dakota State University in Brookings, S.D. Students often return later to say, "Wow, those things you taught us, I use them every day."

Discussing marriage in the classroom may help open the overly romantic eyes of the young, he says. Myths can serve as stumbling blocks to happiness in marriage. These include:

* It's better to live together first. No research supports such a notion, Mr. Gardner says.

* Having children will make you closer. Many couples find that making the transition to parenthood is one of the most difficult phases of marriage.

* Good marriages don't have problems. "Some couples think, 'If it's true love, it ought to just grow without work,' Gardner says.

False concepts about "true love" are perhaps the most pernicious myths. Gardner sometimes asks his students to watch the 1943 film classic "Casablanca" and then ponder the love story portrayed between the characters Rick and Ilsa, who once shared a brief, romantically charged interlude in Paris without ever discussing their pasts or personal lives.

Does this depict true love? he asks his students.

Some are quick to grasp that such an attraction would have a superficial foundation at best. But others, he says, insist that, "it must be love because it's so romantic."

"Those are the students that I worry about," Gardner says.

Popular marriage-education programs

Connections. These two programs - Dating and Emotions (intended for ages 13-17) and Relationships and Marriage (aimed at ages 16-20) - were developed by a Massachusetts high school teacher. They include readings and workbooks, and focus on developing relationship and communication skills. The course also calls for students to pair up and participate in a mock wedding and marriage. www.buildingrelationshipskills.org

Partners: A Curriculum for Preserving Marriages. Partners was created by a divorce lawyer and is sponsored by the American Bar Association. It's a package of 10 lessons that stress looking for the right qualities in a partner, communication and negotiation skills, and creating a better understanding of the difficult realities of divorce, child custody, and related family legal issues. www.abanet.org/family/partners

The Art of Loving Well: A Character Education Curriculum for Today's Teenagers. Originally conceived as a program to promote abstinence among teens, it was developed at Boston University with the aid of a federal grant. A textbook contains literary selections - running the gamut from Shakespearean sonnets and fairy tales to Leo Tolstoy and Alice Walker. It encourages students to think more deeply about the values involved in committed, faithful love and friendship. www.bu.edu/sed/lovingwell

Send your e-mail comments to marjorie@csmonitor.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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