States prod schools to teach relationships

A new Washington State law will establish a curriculum covering conflict resolution, parenting, and family finance.

Somehow, back when life was slower and families more conventionally nuclear, mothers and fathers seemed better able to teach their children the nuts and bolts of successful relationships: how to communicate clearly and how to resolve conflicts respectfully.

Today, with rising concerns over divorce rates and domestic violence, states are making greater efforts to help couples navigate the path to matrimony and beyond.

Some states, such as Arkansas, Louisiana, and Arizona, have introduced restrictive "covenant marriages" that prohibit divorce. Others encourage marriage preparation counseling before couples say, "I do." But a growing number of states are placing greater responsibility on public schools to help provide young people with the tools they need to establish lasting, healthy relationships.

The latest: Washington State, which recently joined New Jersey and Florida in passing legislation that strongly encourages public school courses that teach relationship skills. Utah has a similar mandate.

"Lifestyles are now so varied, so rush-rush, so stressed, that there may not be enough time for families to teach relationship skills," says Roxanne Trees, a former high school teacher here. "I'm not sure the family is able to do it at all."

Ms. Trees, now a family and consumer science administrator with Seattle's public schools, taught such classes in the early 1990s, and says students not only enjoyed the subject but benefited in multiple ways.

"To me, it's a life skill that lasts far beyond anything else we could teach," she says.

Chris Larson is a case in point. When he was 10, Mr. Larson's parents divorced. "Mom always had a full-time job," he remembers. "Both my parents did their best to prepare me, but they were busy, out working. Nothing in my family really prepared me for what I had to learn how to do [as an adult]."

Mr. Larson, now 30 and living in Wylie, Texas, is married with two young children. He took Ms. Trees' relationship classes - four times. Routinely, he and his classmates would role-play adult scenarios, including the enactment of a full-blown wedding with students playing all the various parts. He found the classes so inspiring he joined Future Homemakers of America.

"I didn't have great examples at home for what to do, and so those courses prepared me. I saw it as relevant education," he says.

Washington's new law, dubbed the Family Preservation act, stops short of requiring school districts to teach relationship courses. Instead, it mandates the state's Superintendent of Public Instruction to create a family preservation curriculum and post it on its website.

Inspiration for the bill came from a citizen activist, Larry Kvamme, a zookeeper at Tacoma's Point Defiance Zoo. Four years ago he heard about Florida's Marriage Preparation and Preservation Act of 1998, which published a family-law handbook, mandated relationship classes in high schools, and encouraged premarital counseling.

The idea touched something deep in Mr. Kvamme. Immediately he began lobbying the legislature, and in 2002 celebrated passage of a bill requiring the state to publish a handbook similar to Florida's.

Mr. Kvamme then turned his attention to the second phase, classes for high school students. The curriculum will focus on communication and conflict resolution skills, financial responsibilities, parenting responsibilities, and domestic violence.

"Part of why I did this was just for social reasons," Kvamme says. "I was a single parent and I saw firsthand the effects of divorce on kids," which he lists as increased risk of teen pregnancy, greater chances of juvenile delinquency, and probability of lower scholastic achievement.

Not to mention the cost of divorce on state budgets. He says his research revealed that Florida spends $2.3 billion annually for divorce-related welfare, law enforcement, legal costs, and social work. In 2003, Washington recorded 39,679 marriages and 26,710 divorces. That's 73 divorces a day.

In order to pass the family preservation bill, supporters removed a requirement that would have forced schools to teach the curriculum. Many legislators were loath to pass a mandate that also did not provide necessary funding. It passed with only one legislator opposed.

"We teach our students everything in the world - except healthy relationships," says Dr. Les Parrot, a psychology professor at Seattle Pacific University. "Not until recently have we devoted scholarly attention to relationships."

Along with Leslie Parrot, his wife and a family therapist, Dr. Parrot teaches two popular relationship courses at SPU, even though it was met with resistance from the administration when they first wanted to teach the classes 10 years ago. Until recently, Parrot explains, researchers thought love was too "mushy" a topic for academic study. But that has changed.

"We know from research that students that get information on relationships fare better in their relationships," he says.

Not all Washington lawmakers embraced the bill. Although Tacoma Rep. Steve Kirby eventually voted for the measure, he was a vocal opponent of the Kwamme's bill because, he said, it was too vague. "I live in a blended family. I'm divorced. I've got a kid in the seventh grade and I don't need for him to go to school and hear criticism of ... his kind of family."

Some students see the classes not as opportunity for criticism, but as a place to discuss and learn how to navigate an adult world. Monica Milburn, a senior at Sumner High School east of Tacoma, testified in favor of the legislation.

"A lot of kids come from single-parent families, and maybe their parent just doesn't have the time to teach them ... how to use a credit card, or what to do when they have a baby," she stated. "The family is the basic unit of society, and this bill gives kids a better chance to know how to operate in a family."

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