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Between 12 & 20

Romantic Relationships

by Erin Chianese

As a birdwatcher, each spring I anticipate and thrill to the privilege of glimpsing a bird’s mating ritual. This year I witnessed a male Allen’s Hummingbird winging back and forth through the air as if on a pendulum swing, culminating his display by flying straight up out of sight, and, with a high pitch vrrrip, diving down at lightning speed. All this magnificent effort impressed a lady calmly scrutinizing him on a nearby branch. What a natural, beautiful, and necessary part of life courtship can be. 

Unfortunately courtship is not so cut-and-dry in the realm of Homo sapiens. The rituals have changed dramatically over time and even in the past twenty years, since we parents pranced through our own courtships. We need to familiarize ourselves with the new trends, so that we can relate to our teenagers. Ultimately, I hope my children meet wonderful life partners; it is an exciting and fulfilling part of life. In the meantime, I would like them to have some experience with romance so they know what to look for and cherish in a relationship. It is frightening for me to think of the dangers of relationships now, for both physical and mental health. But made strong and confident with information, some old-fashioned behavior, and supportive parents, teenagers will be empowered to have a positive learning experience.
We know a sixteen-year-old homeschooled girl who works with adults in their early twenties, and she is upset by the sexual undertones the boys speak to her in. She searched the library and found a book of information and solutions that she shared with me. A Return to Modesty--Discovering the Lost Virtue by Wendy Shallit is an eye-opener, describing the customs of dating today, the possible reasons for their establishment, and healthy suggestions to deal with them. I recommend it highly to both parents and teenagers. Shallit was herself so uncomfortable with the sexual expectations of modern dating that she did research for her Ph.D. thesis on the subject.
Apparently dating today is not necessarily to find a potential mate but rather to have casual sex. Relationships are not emphasized or encouraged by the media and peers. Shallit sites numerous magazine articles in both men’s and women’s magazines that promote casual sex on the first date. No commitment is involved and this scenario is commonly called “the hookup.” My daughter found that high school students refer to a “hookup” as a sort of kissing session, usually without even going on a date and definitely without any further commitment and contact. In fact, by the early teens, the “first kiss” is a must-have and it does not matter if there is any meaning behind it. Often it is humiliating. I lament the sweetness and innocence these kids are not experiencing.

Wendy Shallit points to modesty in women and chivalry in men as defense and direction for new dating standards. Modesty is polite or proper qualities in dress, speech, and conduct. Chivalry is behaving like a gentleman: acting with honor, exercising generous treatment toward others, being courteous and attentive toward a woman, and providing protection to a woman. Just as the opposite, immodesty and aggressiveness, often rudeness, are promoted and perpetuated in our culture now, preserving modest and gentlemanly traits can ensure romantic integrity by attracting the same traits in others.
Even though our own courtships were a while back, we still remember how we felt and acted and what we expected. We also know what makes a healthy romantic relationship and we can pass on many tidbits. I occasionally ask my daughters these types of questions: “How do you know a boy really likes you? How should either of you behave when you like each other? How much time would you expect the partner to spend with you or to talk with you on the phone? How do you want to be treated and how should you treat the other person? Do boys and girls want different things from a relationship?” This last question might take some research to answer. Girls innately focus on relations and nurturing others, while boys focus on goals, ambitions, and enjoyment. These differences create a balance in every couple but they lead to many misunderstandings as well.

Many adolescents develop crushes. They can be on someone like a rock star, a teacher, or a peer. Jeanne and Don Elium, authors of Raising a Daughter and Raising a Son, believe that crushes are important as a natural part of maturing. Adolescents want their world to have order, to be perfect like it was perceived by them to be in their earlier childhood. The crush is seen as perfect from afar. I was so relieved to read this because I have been worried about a friend of my daughter. She seems to obsess on a different boy every two months: A video store cashier; a friend’s older brother; Orlando Bloom. I have been afraid for her; what if the boy takes advantage of her naiveté? The Eliums recommend not judging the crush but maintaining boundaries and being patient. The crush will pass, the adolescent will be introduced to the imperfect world, and the bruised feelings will be a lesson in dealing with disenchantment.

If a teenager is already in a romantic relationship, upholding a constant rapport helps both you and your teen realize how things are going. My youngest had a short fling with a boy and she came up with this observation near the end of their romance, “Gifts and flowers are nice but they are not substitutes for apologizing or for not spending time with me.” Examples of other questions to be aware of are: “What is fighting fair as opposed to verbal attack? Are there control issues going on? Are you budgeting your time well between your activities, schoolwork, interests, friends, and your relationship?” Also encourage communication between the couple, so that respect and self-respect are maintained.

“What is your safety zone?” Asking this question to a teen can bring up a lot of emotion. Saying “No” to a boyfriend or girlfriend can be very difficult. For example, a girl may not want to do something as daring as a boyfriend suggests, or a boy may not like to hang out with her large group of girlfriends. A girl may want the warmth and security of a hug, but she may go too far to please a boy so he will keep liking her. A boy may feel pressure from his friends to have sex to show off his prowess. Shallit offers embarrassment and negative inner feelings as indicators of where a person stands in a situation. If teenagers can recognize and trust these feelings they can answer the safety zone question. Keeping in mind the value of modesty and chivalry can also help them draw safety zone boundaries. If teens find themselves outside their safety zone, they need to ask themselves if they are feeling too needy, are acting on pressure from peers or their partner, or are attracted to the wrong sort of person. Then they can investigate further to solve their dilemma. If they do, a negative romantic pattern will be avoided in the future. 

Shallit specifically calls for parents to protect their children, even into their adulthood. Besides acting interested and talking often, parental supervision, restrictions, and presence help many situations. Being home when her boyfriend is over, enforcing curfews, inviting his girlfriend to family functions, and keeping strict tabs on a teen’s whereabouts give the impression parents are there and aware. I sincerely offer to pick up my kids any time they are uncomfortable in a situation. Once my daughter called me to come home from her weekend trip because she was so bothered by a boy there. 
Whether parents are married or a single parent is dating, adult behavior is always a model for children. Paying attention to our own relationships freshens them up for present connection and enjoyment. Tolerance, acceptance, and kindness toward our partners show our kids the same.

After reading this article, my younger daughter handed me one of her CDs. She pointed to a song by Outkast called “Behold a Lady.” Modesty and chivalry ARE still cherished. Here are some of the lyrics: 

“...The classic lady, a rare breed indeed / Is that make and model discontinued?
...Yo’ mama’s old-fashioned, yo’ daddy don’t play / You’ll always be this lovely, ‘cause they raised you that way.
...Sad, but one day our kids will have to visit museums / To see what a lady looks like / So if you find one, good sir, hold her tight / If you spot one, treat her right...” E.C.