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Family Life Education

Family Life Education

Preparing individuals and families for the roles and responsibilities of family living is nothing new. Because knowledge about human development, interpersonal relationships, and family living is not innate, societies have needed to develop ways through which they may transmit the wisdom and the experience of family living from one generation to succeeding ones. Some societies transmit this knowledge through formal means such as puberty or initiation rites. For the most part, however, individuals learn about family living in the family setting itself as they observe and participate in family activities and interactions in their own and other families.

As societies change and become more complex, this pattern of informal learning about living in families becomes inadequate. The development of new knowledge, advances in technology, and changing social and economic conditions create situations where the teachings of previous generations are no longer appropriate or sufficient. In these circumstances, societies must find or create new ways to prepare individuals for their family roles and responsibilities. One of these new ways is family life education.

An Overview of Family Life Education

In North America, family life education developed as an educational specialty around the turn of the twentieth century in response to the changing social conditions of the time (Lewis-Rowley et al. 1993). Changes such as urbanization, industrialization, and the changing roles of women commonly resulted in family and societal difficulties, including increased parent-child strife, juvenile delinquency, shifts in marital roles, and an increased divorce rate. Families were inadequately prepared to deal with these changes, and the founders of family life education believed that providing educational programs in family life education would help to ameliorate or reduce these and other family-related social problems and thus improve family living and social well-being.

By the end of the twentieth century, the family life education movement in North America had experienced considerable growth in the number and kinds of programs available and in the scholarship underlying these programs (Arcus 1995). These developments were not unique to North America, however, as other countries throughout the world have sought ways to help families deal with social and economic changes. Some examples of international family life education initiatives include the Marriage Encounter movement, founded in Spain but present in other countries; the International Family Life Education Institute, Taiwan; Marriage Care (formerly Catholic Marriage Guidance), United Kingdom; the Australian Family Life Institute; and family planning and sexuality education programs throughout the world. The United Nations named 1994 as the International Year of the Family, further attesting to the importance of providing support for families globally.

The purpose of family life education is to strengthen and enrich individual and family wellbeing (Thomas and Arcus 1992). Major objectives include (1) gaining insight into one's self and others; (2) acquiring knowledge about human development and behavior in the family setting over the life course; (3) understanding marital and family patterns and processes; (4) acquiring interpersonal skills for present and future family roles; and (5) building strengths in individuals and families (Arcus and Thomas 1993). It is assumed that if these and other similar objectives are met through family life education, then families will be better able to deal with or prevent problems and will be empowered to live their family lives in ways that are both personally satisfying and socially responsible. Family life education programs are preventative, intended to equip individuals for their family roles rather than to repair family dysfunction.

The Framework for Family Life Education, developed under the auspices of the National Council on Family Relations, specifies nine broad content areas deemed essential for family life education: families in society; internal dynamics of families; human growth and development; human sexuality; interpersonal relationships; family resource management; parent education and guidance; family law and public policy; and ethics (Bredehoft 1997). The Framework lists the most important knowledge, attitudes, and skills relevant to each area, with the focus and complexity differing for people of different ages (children, adolescents, adults, and older adults). Key processes of communication, decision making, and problem solving are incorporated into each area. Other terms sometimes used to describe the same general content include sex education, human relations education, personal development, and life skills education.

An underlying assumption of family life education is that it is relevant to individuals of all ages and to all families whatever their structure, stage of the life course, or special circumstances (Arcus, Schvaneveldt, and Moss 1993). Some programs are related to normative developments for individuals and families, such as getting married, becoming a parent, or the death of a parent (Hennon and Arcus 1993). Other programs are based on non-normative developments or the special needs and transitions that affect some but not all individuals and families (parenting children with special needs, prevention of elder abuse). The response of the family life education movement to both the normative and nonnormative needs of families has resulted in a diverse range of family life programs, some well established (parent education, sexuality education, marriage preparation) and others emerging (parent education for adolescent parents, sexual abuse education/prevention, marriage the second time around).

Family Life Education During Childhood

Basic family life concepts, attitudes, and skills that need to be learned during childhood include developing a sense of self, learning right from wrong, learning about family roles and responsibilities, making and keeping friends, respecting similarities and differences in individuals and families, and learning to make choices (Bredehoft 1997). Although these may be learned within the family, they also receive attention in family life programs because some families may be unable or unwilling to educate their children about these concepts or their efforts may be unsuccessful or may not happen at the right time.

In the United States, most family life education programs for children are provided in school settings (Hennon and Arcus 1993). Programs are typically organized around individual rather than family development, that is, children of the same age or developmental stage are taught the same things regardless of their particular family situations. This approach may be appropriate for many children, but it also may fail to address the important family life education needs of children in nonnormative family situations, such as being raised by a grandparent or dealing with the premature death of a parent.

In 1947, the Japanese Ministry of Education mandated education for both boys and girls to help prepare them for their family roles and responsibilities, and this education, offered through Home Economics departments, continues to be mandated for grades five and six. The curriculum revision implemented in 2002 emphasized learning knowledge, gaining skills, increasing interest in daily family life, and improving family life as a family member (Ministry of Education 2000). Textbooks approved by the Ministry of Education typically focus on normative family needs and ideal family life, and thus may not reflect the reality of the daily lives of some students.

A review of policies and practices in Human Relations in Australian schools found that most of the human relations content at the primary school level was integrated into Health or Social Studies units (Wolcott 1987), including topics such as self-esteem, interpersonal relationships, family life, family roles in child care, different family types, male/female differences, and aspects of physical growth. Curriculum guidelines were recognized as guidelines only, with the specific content to be taught subject to local school interpretation and teacher modification.

Educational reforms in schools in Jamaica in the 1990s (Hodelin 1999) incorporated education for family betterment and the promotion of family health into several subject areas in the core curriculum for grades seven through nine, including social studies, guidance, and counseling and religious studies. This family education is now required for all students, both males and females, entering secondary schools in Jamaica.

Sexuality education is a controversial area in family life education, especially at the elementary or primary level, with many adults believing that sexuality education is a family rather than a school responsibility. A U.S. nationwide poll found that 93 percent of adults surveyed supported sexuality education for adolescents, but fewer than half approved of sexuality education in elementary school (Advocates for Youth 1999). A survey of U.S. fifth- and sixth-grade teachers found that a majority of schools were doing little to prepare students for puberty and for dealing with pressures and decisions regarding sexual activity (Landry, Singh, and Darroch 2000).

One area of sexuality education that does receive attention in elementary or primary schools is that of child sexual abuse. Concerns about sexual abuse have resulted in the development of sexual-abuse prevention programs for young children that teach concepts of personal safety such as good and bad touch, saying no, and telling someone you trust about the abuse. Some evidence indicates that sexual-abuse education increases knowledge, but acquiring knowledge per se may not prevent abuse or change behaviors (Engel, Saracino, and Bergen 1993). There is no evidence that these programs increase children's fears or damage their relationships with parents or other significant adults, but in the absence of positive sexuality education, it is of concern that children may learn only negative messages about sexuality.

Family Life Education During Adolescence

Family life education for adolescents addresses two important kinds of needs: (1) their current normative needs associated with changing physical, sexual, cognitive, social, and emotional developments, and (2) their anticipatory or future family-related needs to help prepare them for adult roles and responsibilities in marriage and parenting. Important family life content includes understanding one's self and others; building self-esteem; making choices about sexuality; forming, maintaining, and ending relationships; taking responsibility for one's actions; understanding family roles and responsibilities; and improving communication skills (Hennon and Arcus 1993). Programs differ in the emphasis placed on this content, with some focusing on personal development themes and others giving greater attention to marriage and family relationships.

The assumption underlying anticipatory family education is that if adolescents are prepared for their potential future family roles, then their adult life experiences in these roles will be more successful (Hennon and Arcus 1993). As most adolescents have not yet selected a marital partner, anticipatory education for marriage emphasizes acquiring knowledge about marriage and intimate relationships, improving relationship skills, and exploring personal attitudes and values regarding marriage, marital expectations, and marital roles (Stahmann and Salts 1993). Anticipatory education for parenthood helps adolescents acquire knowledge about child development and different patterns of child rearing and sometimes includes the study and observation of children (Brock, Oertwein, and Coufal 1993). These programs are most successful when they also include the precursors of successful parenting—self-understanding and the development of interpersonal relationship skills (de Lissovoy 1978).

In the United States and Canada, most family life education programs for adolescents are found in schools, although some may also be offered through youth organizations, community agencies, and churches. Programs vary considerably in their content and approach, in whether they are required or elective, and in which department they may be offered (typically Home Economics, Guidance and Counseling, Social Studies, or Health). Information about program effectiveness is limited but suggests that programs may be successful in helping students acquire knowledge and skills but have little impact on attitudes and values (Hennon and Arcus 1993). Many programs are hampered by the lack of time allocated to them, the lack of educational resources, and limitations in preparing family life teachers.

In Japan, family life goals at the upper-secondary level include understanding human development and daily life, understanding the meaning of families, family and community connections, learning knowledge and skills for daily life, and creating family and community life cooperatively between men and women (Ministry of Education 2000). This content, taught in the Home Economics department, has been mandated for girls since 1960 and for both girls and boys since 1989. Secondary school subjects called Life Environment Studies and Morals may also teach content related to human development, interpersonal relationships, family interaction, ethics, and family and society.

Human relations topics in Australian secondary schools may either be integrated into established subject areas (typically Health Education, Social Studies, or Home Economics) or presented as an independent subject such as Personal Development, Life Skills, or Human Relations (Wolcott 1987). Curriculum guidelines vary among the states and territories, and because these guidelines are "suggestive," some family life topics may receive little if any attention.

Beginning in 2002, citizenship, which includes respecting individual differences and the development of good relationships, will become a statutory subject taught in all state schools in the United Kingdom (Blunkett 1999). For the first time, relationship skills and different kinds of relationships, such as marriage and parenthood, will be taught to all students from age eleven on. Although citizenship is a statutory subject, each individual school will determine how the content is to be taught and by whom. This curricular development is being supported by other U.K. agencies such as Marriage Care, which provides flexible-use teaching units emphasizing good communication skills for use with twelve- to twenty-year-olds through their project Foundations for a Good Life.

In Jamaica, education for family in secondary schools has typically been offered by Home Economics (Hodelin 1999). Originally, this education was based on nineteenth-century educational views exported from the United Kingdom to the English-speaking Caribbean and, depending on social class, tended to emphasize either preparation for domestic responsibilities as wife/mother or preparation for vocational domestic service. A reconceptualization of the Home Economics Curriculum in the 1990s emphasized the betterment of family life and provides a Caribbean-relevant curriculum relevant for both male and female secondary students.

The biological onset of puberty highlights the universal need for sexuality education for adolescents, and sexuality education/family planning education receives considerable attention worldwide, prompted by global concerns about adolescent pregnancy and parenthood and the emergence of HIV/AIDS as a health and social issue. A comparative study of family life education, sex education, and human sexuality conducted by UNESCO identified the need to broaden traditional population education to include topics such as reproductive health, the status and empowerment of women, intergenerational relationships, and problem-solving skills in order to improve family and social welfare (Blanchard 1995). In the United States and Canada, most schools provide some form of sexuality education for adolescents, although many curricular guides are out-of-date and programs are not comprehensive, omitting topics such as communication and decision making, personal values and responsibility, and reducing risk-taking behaviors (Engel, Saracino, and Bergen 1993). Efforts to expand and improve family life/sexuality education have been reported in many countries and regions, including Russia (Popova 1996), India (Sathe 1994; Nayak and Bose 1997), Africa (Centre for Development and Population Activities 1997), and New Zealand (Duncan and Bergen 1997). Despite many differences in these programs, educators promote a broad rather than narrow approach to sexuality education, although implementation may be difficult because of resistance from parents and from political and religious leaders.

Family Life Education for Adults

Two characteristics distinguish family life education for adults from that for children and adolescents: first, it is more complex and more varied, as adults must not only meet their own needs for family living but may also bear some responsibility for the family socialization of the next generation(s); second, it is more likely to be related to family life tasks and transitions than to age or developmental level, that is, getting married or becoming parents is more important than the age at which these transitions might occur (Hennon and Arcus 1993).

The earliest family life education for adults was parent education, provided for mothers who met in groups specifically organized to improve parent understanding and parenting practices (Lewis-Rowley et al. 1993). Fathers are increasingly involved, but most parent education is still provided to mothers. Important outcomes of parent education include more positive child behaviors, more positive perceptions of child behaviors, and improved parent-child interactions (Brock, Oertwein, and Coufal 1993). Early generic programs have been adapted to specific target groups, including parents with different backgrounds, different parenting needs, and children of different ages. Despite the diversity of programs available, research indicates that no one parent education program is more effective than the others (Medway 1989). The two most widely used programs, Systematic Training for Effective Parenting (STEP) (Dinkmeyer and McKay 1989) and Parent Effectiveness Training (PET) (Gordon 1975), were developed in the United States, but are available in many countries throughout the world.

Concern for the potential negative impact of divorce on children has led to the development of special parenting education for divorcing parents (Geasler and Blaisure 1998). First documented in 1978, these programs have proliferated since then and are now mandated in some U.S. states. Most are relatively short-term (single, two-hour sessions), and are designed to help parents understand and moderate the effects of divorce on children and to improve their coparenting skills. There has been little systematic evaluation of these programs (McKenry, Clark, and Stone 1999), but exit questionnaires suggest that participant satisfaction is high (Geasler and Blaisure 1998).

ParentLink, an innovative coalition of agencies and organizations in Missouri (U.S.), facilitates access to a wide range of parenting information, services, and support throughout the state (Mertensmeyer and Fine 2000). In addition to a library loan service and community resource lists, ParentLink provides assistance through a toll-free 1–800 number, development of an Internet site, review and evaluation of other websites, a monthly electronic newsletter, and access to consultants (both face-to-face and through listservs). This statewide initiative helps overcome the typically fragmented and piecemeal nature of much family life/parent education for adults.

Marriage education has been a focus of family life education for adults since the earliest programs were developed in the 1930s and 1940s in the United States and Great Britain (Stahmann and Salts 1993; Mace and Mace 1986). Since then, different marriage education programs have been developed to provide premarital couples with opportunities to gain knowledge about and discuss the critical issues and tasks of marriage, to acquire behavioral skills and problem-solving strategies to enhance their relationships, and to evaluate their relationships, including any romanticism, untested assumptions, and/or unrealistic expectations (Stahmann and Salts 1993). Premarital programs appear effective in meeting at least some of their goals, but they may not be equally effective for all participants (Fowers, Montel, and Olson 1996; Gottman et al. 1998). Little is known about the long-term effects of these programs.

Originally, marriage preparation was provided primarily for young adult couples; however, variations of these programs have been developed for couples marrying for the second time, for those marrying during later years, and for those in committed relationships other than marriage. Because premarital education is based on a companionate view of marriage, these programs may not be relevant to all cultural or religious groups. Websites on the Internet can help to disseminate program information to interested persons throughout the world.

Another form of marriage education— marriage enrichment—emerged during the 1960s in Spain and the United States, designed to help people maintain and improve significant interpersonal relationships (Stahmann and Salts 1993). Programs emphasize the strengths of relationships and help participants increase their awareness of self and others, explore and express thoughts and feelings, and improve and use relationship skills. Enrichment programs are typically delivered either through a series of weekly meetings or in intensive weekend retreats. Reviews indicate that marriage enrichment programs are effective, although their effects appear to diminish over time (Stahmann and Salts 1993).

During later adulthood, special family life education needs emerge related to the impact of developmental and health changes on one's self-esteem and sexuality, the loss of significant others such as parents or partners, changes in work roles, and the impact of changing family structure on roles and relationships (addition/loss of family members) (Arcus 1993). Family life education for this age group is limited, but examples include Becoming a Better Grandparent (Strom, Strom, and Collinsworth 1990), designed to increase satisfaction and performance as a grandparent, and Survival KIT for the Holidays (Wood 1987), designed to help adults deal with loss and grief through educational experiences and the development of support systems. Preretirement programs typically focus on financial planning (Riker and Myers 1990), but they may not include important topics such as later-life transitions and changes in family roles. Because transportation and mobility may be issues for older adults, innovative approaches such as a correspondence course in human sexuality (Engel 1983) and disseminating gerontological information through interactive television (Riekse, Holstege, and Faber 2000) have promise for later-life family life education.

Challenges in Family Life Education

Qualified educators are central to the success of family life education, as it is these individuals who bear major responsibility for shaping the educational experience and interacting with participants. Despite their importance, however, few guidelines are available to help prepare family educators. In 1985, the National Council on Family Relations established a certificate program to help improve the training and qualifications of family life educators (Davidson 1989; National Council on Family Relations 1984). Through this program, recognition is given to individuals who hold a baccalaureate or advanced degree in specified fields of study, have a minimum level of postsecondary education in the content areas of the Framework for Family Life Education, and have completed a specified level of related work experience. The Certificate in Family Life Education (CFLE) is a voluntary credential, and has been granted to individuals in the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and Singapore. An important outcome of the CFLE program has been its influence on the content of the college/university programs that prepare family life educators.

The Internet and the World Wide Web present new challenges for family life education. Information technologies make it possible to provide family-related information twenty-four hours a day, every day, and may help facilitate the preparation of professionals through online courses and chatrooms (Hughes, Ehata, and Dollahite 1999). Although it is likely that these technologies will enhance rather than replace more traditional family life education approaches, important issues that will require attention include the reliability and validity of the information available and the effectiveness of this form of family education. As well, the emergence of such things as computermediated relationships (cyber-relationships) and sexualized Internet use requires rethinking the content and strategies of family life education (Merkle and Richardson 2000; Sanders, Deal, and Myers-Bowman 2000).

Family life education is an important means to help ameliorate family issues and problems, but in many situations these programs by themselves may not be sufficient unless their development and implementation are supported by social and educational policies and political decisions. School boards and community interest groups may place restrictions on the content taught in schools, thereby failing to meet some important needs of this age group. Inadequate financial support often means that programs are available primarily to those who can afford to pay registration fees, not necessarily to those who may want or need the programs the most. And, as seen at the beginning of the twenty-first century, resolving the AIDS (Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) crisis in Africa and elsewhere will not only require adequate family education and governmental support to make this education widely available but also political decisions that will ensure that medications are available to those who need it at a reasonable cost.

Underlying the practice of family life education is a basic belief in the importance of family living and a basic respect for persons that recognizes their ability to take charge of their own lives in satisfying ways. Through educational programs, family life education makes an important contribution toward strengthening families to fulfill their significant role as the basic unit of society.

See also:Birth Control: Sociocultural and Historical Aspects; Childhood; Childhood, Stages of: Adolescence; Communication: Family Relationships; Coparenting; Decision Making; Development: Self; Family Development Theory; Family Ministry; Family Roles; Family Science; Family Strengths; Fatherhood; Marriage Enrichment; Marriage Preparation; Mate Selection; Motherhood; Parenting Education; Parenting Styles; Power: Marital Relationships; Problem Solving; Resource Management; Sexuality Education; Sexuality in Adolescence; Time Use


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margaret edwards arcus (with assistance from d. cassidy [united states], m.j. czaplewski [united states], k. makino [japan], a. ueno [japan], and r. whitfield [united kingdom])

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