Schools to teach lessons of marriage

Karen Peterson, USA Today

Add a fourth "R" for relationships to reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic.

When the Florida Legislature in May passed the nation's first law requiring that all high schoolers be taught marital and relationships skills, the state took the lead in a burgeoning but controversial movement.

The growing push is the result of a new body of research that suggests specific interpersonal skills could lower the divorce rate for the next generation - a generation that does not want to repeat the mistakes of its parents. Zealous advocates believe this knowledge should be taught to teens and even preteens in school.

"Florida's move is landmark and visionary," says Diane Sollee, founder of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education. Her "Smart Marriages: Happy Families" conference, which concluded Sunday in Arlington, Va., spotlighted the trend. The newest courses will help students know "marriage is not a helpless crapshoot," she says. "If we've got this new information, we have an obligation to make it available to future generations."

Experts still predict at least one in four new marriages will end in divorce. Some teachers and students, from Pennsylvania to Oklahoma and South Dakota, are enthusiastic about courses that could affect the statistics.

Claremore, Okla., counselor Phyllis Hess decided her school needed something new when she heard a teen-ager outlining her life's plan. "She said she would go to college, get married, get divorced and then get married again," Hess says. "That spoke volumes to me: We need to teach a new foundation for living."

Lynn Dixon teaches a course called Partners to high schoolers in Philadelphia. She could have used the course herself, she says. "I married the same man twice and divorced him twice. I was a victim of poetry about marriage. This course gives a pragmatic look at couplehood; love does not flow like a river. "

Eighteen-year-old Styvens George met his girlfriend in Dixon's classroom. "I learned one person has to be a listener," George says. "The course helped me not be competitive about winning. I'm not just trying to get my point across."

His girlfriend, Kimberly Jackson, 17, took the course partly because her parents have divorced. "I wanted to see what marriage was going to be like," she says. But skeptics are also speaking up. "Schools are not in the business of guaranteeing happy marriages," says Donna Fowler of the American Federation of Teachers. "These courses may be fine, but there is not enough time to do an adequate job of teaching math, reading and science. Loading this stuff on teachers is ridiculous."

Others wonder about the training of teachers and whether such courses - which vary in length, focus and demands on instructors - are actually effective.

Many schools around the country already teach some form of family life course. But Sollee and others say the majority don't measure up. Cutting-edge programs present the newest research, including specific communication techniques, the behaviors most likely to cause divorce, rules for settling conflict and the importance of family patterns in problem solving.

Existing programs are being modified, some to reach ever-younger children. New programs rolling out include:

Pairs for Peers by family therapists Morris and Lori Gordon. Based on landmark courses for adults, programs will be launched nationally for middle and high school students this fall.

Building Relationships: Skills for a Lifetime, co-authored by researcher David Olson. For ages 13 to 18, the course will be ready by September. Olson's two pioneering programs, for engaged couples and those already married, have been used by more than 1 million in eight countries.

EQ (Social-Emotional Intelligence), from psychologist Mo Therese Hannah. In development to teach relationship-building skills to those in kindergarten to eighth grade. A full range of materials will be available later this year.

On Aug. 2, about 50 interested teachers from throughout South Dakota will be trained to teach Connections: Relationships and Marriage, a campaign spearheaded by Scott Gardner of South Dakota State University. Connections was developed by a teacher, Char Kamper, with backing from the private, nonprofit Dibble Fund.

Some of the most vocal advocates of new courses are judges and lawyers disillusioned by the carnage they have seen in court. Judge Dynda Post of Oklahoma's 12th Judicial District says: "Many kids in Oklahoma just get married too young. And the younger you marry, the fewer skills you have." With funding in part from the Family Law section of the Oklahoma Bar Association, she is part of a grass-roots network seeking separate relationships courses for younger and older Oklahoma students.

Lynne Gold-Bikin is a divorced divorce lawyer who wants to put herself out of business. Divorce lawyers "know more about what breaks up marriages than anybody." Working with Pairs materials and funding from the American Bar Association, Gold-Bikin launched Partners in 1994 based on "communications skills, life skills and the law. . . . This is not touchy-feely stuff. This is real life." Partners is in 31 states.

Students stress they learn as much about themselves as about relationships. "You learn what you are inside," says Luke Hsu, 17, who took Connections in Redlands, Calif. "Most of the time you put on a fake face in public just to impress others."

Defenders of skills-based marital and relationships training stress that the lessons learned can be applied in a wide arena, with parents, siblings, teachers, peers and bosses.

Student Ashley Foreman, 16, of Wood Dale, Ill., agrees after taking Pairs for Peers. "You can go through your life being totally smart. . . . but if you don't have people skills, you won't get the job. But you have to be with people no matter where you go. You need to have things go smoothly instead of having all these little fights."

Critics, however, suggest such courses may be only marginally useful. Any teacher who can help a child communicate more effectively is "giving a child a gift," "Under stress, children will handle aggression and anger primarily the way the people who raised them did," says SaraKay Smullens, a Philadelphia marriage and family therapist. A teacher can teach that patterns of communication can be altered, "but they will have to work very hard to change them."

She is also concerned that teachers who may be given no training at all may not be prepared to deal with possible emotional fallout. Teachers should be able to "consult continuously with a trained therapist who understands the complexity of childhood development."

Although there is much positive, anecdotal feedback from teachers and students, Diane Sollee says as yet there is little scientific research supporting skills-based marital and relationships training in schools.

Some discouraging news came recently from pioneering researcher John Gottman, who found that in the middle of an argument even happily married couples cannot always use techniques for fighting fair.

Some analysis is on the way. California State University San Bernardino and South Dakota State University will independently evaluate results of the Connections program, now used in 20 states.

Developed at Boston University with a federal grant, "The Art of Loving Well" is now used in 47 states. A government-sponsored study of eighth-graders during field tests of the course found that 8% became sexually active during the school year after the course; 28% of a control group did.

Sollee stresses that most courses have nothing to do with sex education and are nonsectarian. The courses can be used, of course, in many places that feature religion, including church and community groups.

Most in the relationships movement say that what they teach is more relevant than many current courses. "There is a lot of learning in schools today that does not contribute to what students do in their daily lives," researcher David Olson says. "These interpersonal skills they will use for the rest of their lives."

By Karen S. Peterson, USA TODAY copyright - all rights reserved.