Teen relationships are an education in their own right

By Zoë Boothby

It’s tough being a teenager. Your face breaks out. Your body starts to grow in weird and unpredictable ways. You have all these feelings that your parents just don’t understand.

Sometimes it feels like the only respite from crippling teenage anxiety is the cute boy that sits across from you in English. His dreamy eyes. His gummy smile. His beautiful long tresses, with just the perfect amount of flickiness (this was 2009, after all). The only thing getting you through the long dark night of teenagedom is the vain hope that one day this cute boy might ask you out.

The only respite from teenage anxiety is the cute boy in English

But not if the powers that be have their way. Late last month, Toby Belfield, the head teacher of a boarding school in Wales, sent an email to pupils to warn them against engaging in romantic relationships. He encouraged them to devote themselves to “their studies” as opposed to “the emotional turmoil connected with teenage romance”.

It is widely accepted that the 21st Century is not a fun time to be a young person. Our university education, which had been sold to us as a necessary commodity, will leave us in tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt that we can have little hope of paying off.

After that, we are offered little choice but to enter an over-saturated job market, after first toiling over unpaid ‘internships’ and ‘work experience’. We might never own a house, and even if we eventually do, then we will probably still be renting shoddy accommodation furnished by that flatpack Swedish company until we are well into our thirties.

As many as 70% of school children get stressed about taking tests

At the very least, these are all pressures that a young person would not be expected to deal with until they reach adulthood. And, hey, at least we have those halcyon days of youth to fall back on.

Except maybe not. Stress amongst school children is now at an all-time high. Recent data has suggested that over 70% of school-age children get anxious about tests, even when they are well-prepared for them. The pressure to perform, and awareness of the consequences if they fail to do so, is causing a mental health crisis in many schools across the UK.

Toby Belfield justified his decision by arguing that students who engage in relationships whilst at school were in danger of “academically underachieving” and therefore unlikely to attend “the best universities in the world”. Of course, this statement completely brushes over the fact that many students do not want or are not suited to go to university and would be much happier exploring other pathways. Belfield’s statement serves as yet another reminder of what our society values when it comes to education: attainment, attainment, attainment.

Belfield forgets that many people don’t want to go to university

That cute boy in English never asked me out (he ended up going out with one of my best friends), but someone came along soon enough. Though Belfield said it was his desire to “put education first” that motivated him to send the email, he forgot that not all education is academic. Sometimes the most important lessons of teenagehood take place outside of the classroom.

Sure, I might have learned the difference between differentiation and integration, or how to draw a parabola. But my teenage relationship taught me compassion, trust, and compromise. It also made me a more rounded individual, and taught me as much about myself as it did the other person. And I can definitely remember the lessons from that relationship better than anything I ever learned in the maths classroom.

Of course, not all teenage relationships are so stable. Though Taylor Swift may have promised dancing in the rain and earth-shattering first kisses (also in the rain), the reality of early romance is often more bumpy than not. However, even these relationships can shape people in positive ways.

Making mistakes is often the best way to learn, as you are more likely to remember the lessons. So why not make your romantic mistakes whilst you are also making the worst hair and fashion mistakes of your life? Then, by the time you are (at least meant to be) a fully-formed person, you will have a much surer sense of what you do and what you don’t want.

People can learn from the mistakes of even bumpy teen relationships

At a time when young people feel less in control of their destinies than ever, it is silly to further limit the choices available to them when they should be learning about themselves – be that through academics or relationships. Forcing young people to not engage in romantic entanglements is less likely to leave them feeling more equipped academically and more likely to make them feel ill-equipped emotionally. But, hey, as long as they know that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell – that’s what’s important, right?

Photograph: victoriagrayphoto via Flickr

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