Session 5—Relationships: Guiding with Wisdom
Relationships bring potential for love, loss, increasing levels of sexual contact, and emotional or physical abuse. They may develop in a variety of ways and stages, from the initiation of dating through different levels of physical intimacy and sexual contact.
This session will help parents and caregivers prepare for a support role as their children mature and venture into romantic and sexual relationships. As adults examine their own ideas about the “right” age at which to explore new kinds of relationships, they will come to accept the unpredictability of their child’s relationship journey: Their children are changing all the time, as are their social worlds and cultural contexts. Parents’ opinions, too, are likely to change over time.
Encourage parents and caregivers to deeply consider how they can support their children in developing the skills for healthy romantic and sexual relationships. Affirm that open communication channels are key. While the relationship path of their child’s life is not predictable, adults can try to provide support in a predictable way.
- Chalice, candle, and lighter or LED candle
- Newsprint, markers, and tape
- Computer with Internet access and a projector
- Covenant on newsprint sheet, from Session 1
- Journals or paper, and pencils or pens
- Sticky notes, in four different colors if possible
- Handout 5.1, “Inevitable”
- Handout 5.2, Recommended Multimedia Resources
- Explore the Recommended Multimedia Resources handout for this session. Update any links as needed. Expand the handout to include local resources. You may email the handout to participants prior to the session, plan to visit recommended websites during the session (this will extend your meeting time), or copy the handout to distribute in the session.
- Make enough copies of Handout 5.1, “Inevitable,” for participants to share while listening to a recording of the poet, Mahogany L. Browne, reading her poem.
- Listen to Browne reading the poem (on the linked page, click the speaker icon and then the Play button). Cue up the recording to play for the group.
- Label three sheets of newsprint with ages: 8, 13, and 17. Post the sheets side by side where you can easily reach them.
- Label eight half-sheets of newsprint as follows: “Birth–8,” “9–11,” “12–14,” “15–17,” “18–20,” “21+,” “When in a committed lifetime partnership,” and “Never.” Post the half-sheets, in that order, where all participants can see and reach them.
- Make a set of four sticky notes for each participant, labeled “First date,” “First kiss,” “First partnered orgasm,” and “First genital-to-genital contact.” If possible, use four different colors of notes, one for each activity (e.g., “First date” could be blue, “First kiss” green), but make sure that the writing can be easily read on each color.
- Look over the Taking It Home scenarios and decide which one you will use. Choose the one you think your participants will find most relevant as a group. You will invite the group to choose the age of the hypothetical child.
- Post the group covenant.
- Write the Focused Check-in prompt on newsprint and post it.
- Write the Reflection questions on newsprint and set them aside.
OPENING (5 minutes)
Welcome participants. If any participants are new, briefly review the posted covenant, answer any questions about it, and invite a quick round of name introductions.
Invite a volunteer to light the chalice.
Distribute Handout 5.1, “Inevitable.” Invite the group to read along, if they wish, and play the recording of Mahogany Browne reading “Inevitable.”
Offer a moment for reflection after the poem. Then invite short responses to any of these questions:
- Who in the poem do you recognize?
- Who reminds you of yourself?
- What makes you uncomfortable about the poem?
FOCUSED CHECK-IN (5 minutes)
Invite the group to sit in silence, taking in the words just spoken. Lead the participants in taking a deep breath together. Then ask everyone to reflect on and, if they wish, share how they might complete this sentence: “When I think of first relationships, what comes to mind is _____.”
Invite participants to respond briefly, as they are ready. It is okay to have some silence while participants think about the question. Make sure each one has an opportunity to speak or to pass.
SPOTLIGHT (10 minutes)
Invite participants to get ready to listen to a reading from a Huffington Post article, The New ABCD’s of Talking about Sex with Teenagers, by Amy Schalet. Invite them to notice thoughts, feelings, or stories that come up. Encourage them to use their journals to make notes.
Read the following passages, pausing where indicated:
While we send the message that marriage can wait, relationships do not, and young people need to learn that building healthy relationships requires mutual interest, respect, care and trust. To start that conversation, we might ask: “Among your friends, are there couples you admire? Why? What makes that relationship special?” “Are there couples whose relationship bothers you? What might improve their relationship?” If romance proves too loaded a topic, we might start by asking teenagers about their friendships.
Parents are often troubled by teenage sexuality because they feel it is an area in which they have little control, as many teens, particularly girls, hide their sexual lives from their parents—for fear of disappointing them or being judged. However, maintaining parent-teen connectedness is critical for teenage wellbeing, sexually and otherwise. Experts often urge parents to clearly communicate their values, but I would add the recommendation to state clearly: “The most important thing to me is my relationship with you; even if you behave differently from what I would wish or believe is right for you, I want you to feel that you can talk to me.” By keeping that connection strong and the conversation open, parents are able to have more influence.
Teenage sexuality is an arena of life in which Americans see some of our greatest personal and cultural diversity. . . . [It] encompasses a range of orientations and beliefs that many parents find troubling. At the same time, it offers parents and educators a great opportunity to enter into conversations about accepting and respecting difference within a community: Much as teens want to be and look like everyone else in their peer group, sexuality is an arena in which each person is unique. And young people need to learn that teenagers range in the pace of their physical and emotional development, vary in sexual orientations, and may hold different beliefs about sex based on their religion and culture.
Invite the group to share a minute or two of silence and gather their responses. Say they may journal, as they are moved, with any thoughts, feelings, or issues that have come up.
PERSPECTIVES (20 minutes)
Starting at the newsprint labeled “8,” ask participants what they think a child of that age typically needs from their parent or caregiver. Invite them to consider their own children, children they know well, or themselves at the age of eight. Write their ideas on the top half of the newsprint. After you have a collection of ideas, draw a line under them, and ask the participants what 8-year-olds might need from their parents or caregivers specifically to help them interact with their peers. How can parents and caregivers support their children in being a good friend or teammate? Write their ideas under the line.
At the newsprint titled “13,” ask what participants think a child of that age might need from their parent or caregiver. Again, they may consider their own children, children they know, or themselves at this age. Write their ideas on the top half of the newsprint. Draw a line under their ideas, and then ask what 13-year-olds might need from their parents or caregivers to support their experiences with romantic and sexual relationships. Write their ideas under the line.
At the newsprint titled “17,” repeat the process for age 17.
Say that these questions are designed to spark participants’ ideas about a hypothetical child and teenager. Now ask them to consider their own children. How do the ideas generated by the group seem to fit their child? What is useful now? What might be different as their children approach these ages? Ask for one or two volunteers to share their thoughts.
Remind participants that sharing healthy sexuality in relationship can be a component of psychological well-being throughout the lifespan. Indicate the posted newsprint half-sheets labeled with age ranges. Tell participants that you will invite them to consider a typical (though not the only possible) progression of sexual activities, and choose the ages at which they believe young people are typically (though not always) ready to engage responsibly in romantic and sexual activities of different kinds. In other words, when do participants believe that the activities on their sticky notes are age-appropriate? Acknowledge that people are ready at different ages, and that other factors affect someone’s timeline, such as whether they have an appropriate partner. Mention that not all sexual behaviors will appeal to every person, and that some people feel little or no desire to engage in sexual activity at all.
Give each participant their prepared stack of four sticky notes and a pen. Ask them to write, on each sticky note, the approximate age at which they think young people are ready to engage in the sexual or romantic activity named on it. Point out the age ranges and note that “When in a committed lifetime partnership” and “Never” are also options. Encourage them to do this independently, without consulting other participants.
When everyone is done, ask participants to place their sticky notes on the posted newsprint sheets that correspond to what they wrote.
Note: If any participants have mobility challenges, adapt this activity to pass around the newsprint half-sheets for participants to attach their sticky notes to, rather than asking everyone to get up. Then collect and post the sheets with the sticky notes on them.
Encourage participants to view the displayed results. If you have used a different color note for each activity, this will help make similarities and differences evident. Ask:
- What surprises you about the similarities and differences in placement?
- Considering the age ranges you have chosen, how wide do you think the range of readiness might be for each of these activities? What factors might make one child ready and another of the same age unready for a romantic or sexual activity?
- What emotions come up for you while doing this exercise?
REFLECTION (30 minutes)
Invite participants to reflect on the Amy Schalet reading, the age range activity, and the questions you are about to read. Say they will be invited to respond one at a time, as they are moved, without interruption. Post and read all of the following questions, and ask that participants respond to the question or questions that speak most deeply to them. Remind them of the amount of time each person will be able to speak.
- What might make one child ready and another of the same age unready for a sexual activity?
- How can you learn what sort of support your child may need at a given time?
- How can you give a child privacy to figure things out about relationships, and at the same time provide information or advice you believe they need?
- What crossed your mind when you were deciding appropriate ages for initiation of sexual behaviors? Were you concerned with what other people were writing? If so, why? Were you thinking about your own experiences? The social culture in which your child is growing up? Your hopes or fears for your child as they encounter romantic and sexual opportunities?
- How can you be gentle with yourself when you are not able to achieve your concept of what “the right parent” would do or say?
TAKING IT HOME (15 minutes)
Lead the group in practicing or brainstorming ways to open conversation with children, using one or more of the scenarios that follow. Ask the group to quickly choose an age, relevant to most of them, for a hypothetical youth between 11 and 17. Then read the scenario you have chosen.
- Scenario 1: You ask your youth to wash the dishes, and they comply. When you come back into the kitchen a few minutes later, they are singing along with a current pop song that alludes to sexual violence as something fun and sexy.
- Scenario 2: Your youth says there is someone they want to start dating; they might say they are “talking to” someone. Upon questioning, they disclose that they spent a fair amount of time talking online or texting with this person over the last few days, and they have made plans to see each other this weekend. This person is two years older than your youth.
- Scenario 3: You ask your youth, who is texting with a friend, if they have a pen. They nod and wave you toward their backpack. You dig through several pockets and don’t find anything, so you open the main compartment. They yell, “Stop!” and run over and grab the backpack from you. They pull a pen out of a pocket you hadn’t tried, glare at you, and carry their backpack to their room.
Facilitate conversation. If you have time, offer a second scenario.
After everyone has had a chance to share, invite the group to appreciate themselves and one another for taking the time to be here. Ask participants to think about all that was shared and experienced during the session and to lift up one comment or experience for which they are particularly grateful.
When all who wish to have spoken, invite them to shape their “take home” learning into an action they can commit to. Ask participants to answer, on paper:
- What promise can you make now for something you will do, between now and our next meeting, to help yourself be ready to foster open channels of communication with your child about relationships and romantic or sexual activities?
CLOSING (5 minutes)
Share the closing reading, from “To a Young Girl,” by William Butler Yeats:
My dear, my dear, I know
More than another
What makes your heart beat so;
Not even your own mother
Can know it as I know,
Who broke my heart for her
When the wild thought,
That she denies
And has forgot,
Set all her blood astir
And glittered in her eyes.
— from The Wild Swans at Cooley (1919)
Invite a participant to extinguish the chalice. Thank the group for their participation. If you haven’t done so yet, distribute Handout 5.2, Recommended Multimedia Resources, for participants to take home. Remind the group of the day, date, time, and place of the next session.