O Brave New World!
In preparation for a school talk, I have been mulling over what is called ‘RSE’ in schools; the emotional, social and physical aspects of growing up, relationships, sex, human sexuality and sexual health. We know that school science and PSHE lessons will cover the required curriculum, but what role do parents play?
When it comes to sex and relationships, it’s easy for us to be let off the hook, heck, we might even welcome that! But does this really constitute a fair division of labour between school and home?
Ultimately, relationships and sex education boils down to our children’s understanding of the nature of healthy versus unhealthy relationships and how love can enhance life quality and satisfaction, alongside having enough self-knowledge, self-confidence and self-esteem to ward off unwelcome contact, exit situations that feel uncomfortable and stay true to themselves. Imagine not being part of this conversation with our own children? That’s unthinkable.
Today, early romantic relationships are dramatically different to when we were growing up, and we need to keep up. Tweens and teens no longer wait at the bus stop at the end of the school day, for a glimpse of the kid they fancy. Early relationships are more often kickstarted online. 50% of teens have let someone know they are romantically interested by friending them on social media. The onset of teen romance in the digital age requires a whole new body of digital knowledge, digital resilience, social skills, and a good dose of emotional intelligence.
As World Book Day beckons, it’s worth reflecting on how stories can contribute to early chats about love and relationships.
I am currently reading What’s so special about Shakespeare?, by Michael Rosen with my 11 year old, and it reminded me of the holistic RSE education that Shakespeare’s plays can provide! My son was shocked to learn that Romeo and Juliet were supposedly only two years older than him; a fact which prompted a family discussion about the right age for love relationships, how you know you like someone and whether parents have the right to tell you who to love or marry. Beyond that, we ended up chatting about why people get married, how relationships end and who has been divorced in our own family circle.
As you can tell, these aren’t questions that can be answered in one afternoon; they require time, thoughtfulness, consideration, humour and a degree of self-disclosure. Children need to mull over your conversations, reflect and come up with more questions. During family chats about relationships, you might find that they do more listening than talking, and that’s ok.
Deep down, they will be relieved that external discussions are reflecting their own internal questions. When you start opening the door to conversations about love and relationships, over time, they can take place more regularly. It’s normal for parents to feel nervous about children’s curiosity; simultaneously welcoming, yet dreading what they might ask next. Hold onto the fact that, if you and I aren’t the source of information on intimacy, the internet, peers and playground chatter could be.
For teens who have already initiated early romantic relationships, make sure they are doing so in a savvy way.
It is good to start with a chat about flirtation, which happens increasingly online. I recommend the app, Zipit, which ensures early, digital chit-chat can take place safely. Teens should only talk to people they have actually met or can verify the identity of. They should be mindful of the volume of personal information they share, and be prepared to set boundaries if unwelcome requests come. Ask them: Is it a good idea to tell the other person everything about yourself in the first week? What is fun about flirting? What is its purpose? When might it tip into the uncomfortable?
Popular television programmes, relationship tales from the celebrity world, films and stories all provide useful fodder for talking with teens about initiating, sustaining and exiting relationships. We can but arm them with a strong sense of self, a sensible set of family digital values and our belief in their ability to make good decisions. None of this is easy; they are learning and will undoubtedly do things that disappoint, but hopefully, when they do, it can be a talking and learning point within family life.
Some of the national data on teen relationships is alarming and it would be remiss of me not to mention it. A few years ago, the government described relationship abuse among young people as ‘prevalent’ (This is Abuse, Home Office, 2015). Two-thirds of UK girls and a third of boys reported experiencing emotional abuse, most often controlling behaviour. Shockingly, around half of girls thought that control was an integral aspect of an intimate relationship. There is clearly work to be done; schools can’t do it on their own and parents are best placed to understand their teens’ social worlds. The ups and downs of teenage life are best met with continual parental sensitivity, courage and care.