Relationships. Where do young people today learn about the complexities of forming and sustaining healthy relationships? Most of us learned about relationships from our parents in the context of our own families. For better or for worse, we saw both the good things and the bad things in living color.
However, for many of us there was a continuity and a consistency that we built our relationships around. It didn't matter what family you were born into, what your father did for a living or even what religion you subscribed to - basic relational values were the same for all of us.
Growing up twenty or thirty years ago, the patterns of relationships were the same. In early elementary school, you made friends with the kids in your class. You played sports, went to the movies together and participated in other recreational activities.
At home at an early age, you learned what was appropriate between two friends. You were taught how to share and how to respect each other. Your parents laid the foundation and your school reinforced it.
Most parents shared similar values and beliefs about raising children. Thus, what you were exposed to was similar. Dating only became an issue in high school. For the most part, it was group dating. An activity was selected and everyone agreed to participate in it. Coupling only became an issue in junior or senior year of high school.
The do's and don'ts of dating were covered at home. For the most part, we were told we should do nothing but talk and maybe hold hands. In the seventies and eighties, there were not a lot of distractions. Social opportunities were limited. Today, the average adolescent has a million diversions. Computer technology has opened up many new venues for socializing. The cell phone phenomena and instant messaging have created a range of new challenges for social relationships. Ipods and musical headsets have further contributed to the average teenager's social distraction.
My Space and various chat rooms on the internet have also created other challenges in regard to developing healthy and wholesome relationships. What was once a progressive development in the life of a young adolescent has now become an instant happening.
The average teenager is ill-prepared to enter the complexities of the twenty-first century. They have been overexposed to an abundance of material and don't have the skills and maturity to navigate the complexities of human relationships. Almost overnight, we have robbed them of their innocence.
In the seventies, many of our junior high school children were beginning to experiment within their social relationships. Maybe a few students were smoking cigarettes, trying a joint or maybe even stealing a six-pack of beer from their parent's refrigerator. At that time, those social behaviors seemed horrific. By today's standards, they are almost expected behaviors and are considered harmless compared to what our junior high school students are doing now.
Today, many of our junior high school students are experimenting with much more than marijuana. Pills and other street drugs are becoming commonplace. Sexual experiences, once rare in junior high school, are becoming epidemic. Exclusive dating is more a norm than an exception. Teenage pregnancy, once an exceptional circumstance in high school, is becoming more commonplace even in junior high school.
Unfortunately, there are few forums where our adolescents can openly discuss their fears and concerns about social relationships and social behaviors. Too many families are racing in a million directions and do not take the time to discuss these issues with their children. The influence of the internet, television and other media in this area is overwhelming.
Parents need to be more vigilant in what their children are exposed to. Too many adolescents are growing up too soon. Developmentally and emotionally, they are not ready to confront all of the complexities associated with human relationships and contemporary social behavior.
Too often, our schools are a step too slow in this area. Our health curriculum is inadequate. Many school communities are too reluctant to address these delicate and complicated human issues.
Most agree that it's a parents' primary responsibility to educate their children when it comes to values, relationships and other human social issues. For the sake of argument, I would agree. However, based on what our Pride Survey suggests, parents are not taking care of business. Thus, for the sake of our children, our schools must do more.
We need to create opportunities during the school day, where our students can discuss the complicated and delicate issues of daily living. Without proselytizing or condemning, we need to provide them with appropriate information and teach them the necessary skills to manage in a rather complicated and hostile world.
There is a core of basic human and relational values that I am sure most of us could agree upon as they relate to developing adolescents. As adults, we need to have these conversations. Most adults reading this column would not want their twelve year olds engaging in sexual behavior, smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol or using street drugs. We also would not want our adolescent children in social settings where that behavior was permitted or tolerated.
Most parents would not consciously permit the behavior that was just described. However, from experience, I know firsthand that more parents than most of us would like to believe, do tolerate this behavior. Why would parents consciously tolerate this kind of destructive behavior?
Many parents tolerate this kind of behavior because they really don't believe it's as serious as I have outlined. Or, should I say, they don't want to believe it is as serious as I have described. It is frightening to think about what our junior and senior high school students are exposed to on a regular basis. So many of them are emotionally and socially ill-equipped to face these relational and behavioral challenges.
Unfortunately, too many of our children grow up not valuing who they are as human beings. As parents, we have to work harder at providing our children with the tools and support they need so they can deal courageously and intelligently with their wide range of social choices.
Good relationships, whether they are friendships, love relationships or relationships with our parents, demand hard work. They don't just happen. Healthy relationships need to be nurtured, strengthened and developed over the course of time. That dynamic is one that you acquire through human education and experience.
We need to create greater opportunities for our children to see healthy relationships in action. We need to afford them the opportunity to learn these vital skills for survival.