by Karen PlattMy kids are eight and 10 years old. I’d like to talk to them about healthy relationships, both in terms of their friendships now and to lay the groundwork for intimate relationships they’ll be involved in later on. I want them to have some good solid ideas about what is healthy and what is not. Any ideas?
Of all the questions related to healthy sexual development, this might be one of the most important and most overlooked. When we talk about sex, we often talk about it mechanically, without the context of relationships. But, regardless of how much technical information a child has about what goes where and how parts function, it is impossible to be a sexually safe and healthy person without practicing the components of a healthy relationship. And that goes for all relationships—from friendships with peers to those with family members and other adults, and everything in between. And the foundation for how we behave, and how we allow others to treat us in relationships, is laid right from the beginning.
So what is a “healthy” relationship? When asked this question, a group of guys from a youth drop-in centre in Toronto came up with the following—and although they were talking about intimate relationships, the same criteria goes for all. Helping your children internalize the following rules of healthy relationships, adapted and expanded upon from The Little Black Book for Guys (Annick Press, 2008), will create that solid groundwork on which to build relationships throughout their lives.Respect
: You respect each other’s choices. You both feel comfortable talking about things even if you disagree. Respect means that you don’t talk about someone behind her back or make fun of her decisions, even if they are different than yours. It means that if you really are worried about her choices, you talk openly and honestly with her.Equality
: You play by the same rules. Equality and compromise in a relationship makes life much more exciting and interesting. Equality means that one person is not always the “ringleader” and that everyone has a fair say in decisions. It means peer pressure or intimidation (both forms of power) isn’t used to make someone act in a way that makes him uncomfortable.Trust
: You each believe what the other says and you don’t freak out about what the other is doing when you’re apart. Trust makes a relationship much more comfortable to be in and makes it easier to open up to each other. Trust means you can feel comfortable you won’t spread gossip or share things with others that you have told each other in confidence.Honesty
: You can tell each other real things even if it’s difficult. Honesty means you can talk about uncomfortable or hard things. It also means that you respect each other’s honesty and decisions.Time Alone
: You can spend time apart. Even best friends need time without each other. It’s good to have separate friends and activities and to realize your lives don’t revolve around each other. And, just because you’re not together, you don’t talk about the other person behind her back.Support
: You are there for each other. You help each other out and when things happen, you listen and provide understanding. And sometimes support may mean realizing your friend needs more help than you can give; it may mean that you help him get help.Communication
: You can talk, talk, talk. You can also listen, listen, listen. Talking and really listening keeps things interesting and keeps misunderstandings at a minimum. Communication is the cornerstone of every relationship.
It is interesting to me how we often allow behaviour in our intimate partners that we would never tolerate in a friend, perhaps because so many of us are unclear as to what really makes a healthy relationship (hint—jealousy is not one of the components). Not only do kids need to understand what makes a healthy relationship, they need to be encouraged to develop those relationship skills and self-esteem that will be their relationship foundation for the rest of their lives. Most importantly, we have to do more than talk. We need to model those skills, in our relationships with others and with our children.Karen Platt, MA, is a sexual health educator who works with parents and youth. Send questions to email@example.com.