Dating Smarts

Program Length: 6 Lessons
Age Group: 10-14
Author: Marline Pearson, M.A.

A Bit More Than Friends

Most pre-teens have little preparation for the challenges of adolescence – particularly in matters of the heart. This compact 6-lesson program helps them, in very practical ways, understand and manage their first experiences with attractions, emotions and young love. Dating Smarts uses highly engaging activities to explore essential aspects of early relationships – attraction, infatuation, feelings, rejection. Kids learn the “how-to” skills of what to say and do, as well as ways to really get to know someone, and to build a relationship.

The messages in Dating Smarts are respectful, affirming the value of early romantic experiences while offering perspective how these grow and change over time. Stories from The Art of Loving Well Anthology as well as episodes from the My So-Called Life teen TV series (optional) are used.


This program, designed for middle or junior high school teens, provides fun, engaging ways to address the topic of friends and first romantic attractions. Through the use of activities, stories and visual media, this unit gets young teens thinking about the building blocks for healthy relationships and the importance of establishing boundaries as they prepare to enter the dating scene. There are four core lessons and two optional but strongly recommended lessons. Lessons one and four use the same activities presented in the original Love U2: Relationship Smarts but develops those concepts in more depth for this age group.

Lesson One begins with a focus on self. It explores four basic dimensions of maturity with an emphasis on how developing emotional, mental and social maturity takes personal effort. The lesson moves on to help teens consider their values through an “auction” activity complete with play money, and leads to a discussion about what’s attractive and what’s important beyond appearances when thinking about friends and romantic attractions.

Lessons Two and Three, entitled Crushes 101 and Crushes 102, address some of the most frequently asked questions and concerns teens have about early attractions. This session offers tips and practice for such things as: the do’s and don’ts of showing interest; how to tell if someone is interested in you; what to say or do if you are interested in someone; how to start and keep conversations going; how to ask someone out; fun things to do to get to know someone better; practice through role-playing; saying “no”; and dealing with rejection.

Lesson Four focuses on the differences between infatuation and love, and the importance of friendship as a foundation for relationships. It contains a “Test Your Love Smarts” quiz and an “Is it Love or Infatuation” activity enlivened with descriptions from real teens. Lesson Five centers on an episode from the critically acclaimed DVD series, My So Called Life, which portrays all the mercurial ups and downs of infatuation. A number of sub-themes are included, ranging from jealousy and insecurity about how to act to friends passing letters and spreading rumors. This DVD brings to life many of the issues addressed in this unit and engages teens through the use of video drama. The lesson concludes with a discussion of Shakespeare’s powerful, Sonnet 130, from The Art of Loving Well anthology.

Lesson Six focuses on another selection from The Art of Loving Well, entitled The Makeover of Meredith Kaplan.”  This story provides a rich opportunity for teens to vicariously experience the joys and uncertainties of early romance and to discuss the importance of attractions, appearances, and friendship as the basis for any relationship.The lesson ends with “Setting Dating Expectations”, a group activity that includes a questionnaire that can also be sent home to parents as a conversation starter.

Note: Selections from The Art of Loving Well:  A Character Education Curriculum for Today’s Teenagers are required reading for this curriculum. This anthology of short stories, poems and fairy tales about romance and relationship brings concepts alive, touches the emotions and engages teens in a way that straight information does not.

The Love U2® series is a new kind of curriculum for teens. It looks beyond the “do’s and don’ts” of sex—too often the focus of our conversation with teens—to the context of sexuality: namely, relationships. Its goal is to help young people acquire practical skills and useful knowledge for forming emotionally healthy, mutually respectful, and ethically sound relationships. But Love U2 ® is about more than skills or facts. It focuses on helping teens craft a “North Star”—a vision of healthy relationships—that will guide their behavior now and into the future. Teens today live and breathe in a culture emphasizing casual sex and casual connections where no relationship can be trusted to last and where even the most important family bonds sometimes can not be counted on. Indeed, for some teens, sex is seen simply as a transaction. Unfortunately, teens are short on positive models. They have few road maps that will lead them into healthy relationships and away from unhealthy ones. Love U2 ® aims at giving teens a positive model for committed and healthy love relationships. This curriculum is about what teens can hope to achieve, not just what they must try to avoid.

Why This Curriculum Is Needed

This nation has been locked in an ideological battle over sex education: Should we teach abstinence until marriage, or should we teach about safer sex, condoms, and many points in between? This discussion has divided us and shortchanged our teens. Love U2® breaks through this gridlock. It is unapologetically pro-abstinence for teens, but not for reasons that have to do with religion, ideology, or politics. It strongly encourages teens to wait on sex because it is concerned about the emotional and social well-being of teens.

Consider a thought experiment posed by Isabel Sawhill, president of The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy* and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution: If we could somehow eliminate all of the health consequences of teen sex, including STDs and pregnancy, would you want a 15- or 16-year-old to be sexually active? Many people would answer no, and the reason is that there are other compelling emotional and social reasons for teens to abstain from sex.

It is significant that the overwhelming majority of sexually active teens wish they had waited. There are powerful emotional reasons to wait to have sex, including the fact that early sexual involvement is not likely to deliver what teens, especially girls, want—namely, affection, connection, respect, or love. Social reasons revolve around healthy relationship development. For teens, sex typically blurs or hinders genuine relationship development, or worse, glues teens (especially girls) to bad relationships. Since sex always involves the possibility of creating a child—a simple fact that is often ignored – it is also important to consider the needs of a child for parental commitment to one another and to the child.

Teens are on a journey to learn about love, relationships, themselves, and their emerging sexuality. They are moving out of their families and building friendships and romantic connections. As they enter new relationships, teens find themselves in the throes of powerful feelings of attraction, rejection, and a myriad of other emotions. Most teens want affection, respect, love, and connection. Yet our young people receive little guidance on navigating the world of teen relationships and the sexual culture. While we tell them what to say “no” to, we do too little to help teens build the healthy relationships to which they can say “yes.”

Sadly, the messages teens do receive about sex, and the messages they don’t receive about developing positive relationships and why marriage matters, especially if they plan to have children, set the stage for many teens to fail at developing successful relationships. Contemporary culture encourages sex without meaning, living together without commitment, and having babies without mutual commitment and healthy marriage. This perspective carries consequences that seriously disadvantage our young people, especially females. Troubled or unstable relationships and unintended pregnancies can derail teens and young adults in serious ways or cancel out their gains in education, employment, and parenting. Further, such relationship choices can put the well-being of children at risk.

Building Assets

This curriculum is meant to contribute to a larger project of building assets for youth. Insights and skills for building successful relationships are important assets for young people. It is part and parcel of the trajectory of teen and life success and is firmly rooted in a positive youth development approach.

Love U2® is meant to help young people craft a “North Star” for their relationship lives, to build critical communication and other relationship skills, and to acquire insights into healthy relationship development. It engages teens in a deep exploration of the emotional and social dimensions of sexuality and strongly encourages teens to postpone sexual involvement, using with positive reasons and skill-building exercises.

Love U2® is also meant to inform young people of the findings of social science research regarding the link between child well-being and family structure. This curriculum teaches why a particular “sequence” of some of life’s most important events, such as establishing a healthy marriage before having a baby, really matters. Although teens and young adults say they highly value lifelong marriage as a personal goal, many are likely to fail and some are afraid to try. Teens and young adults are often woefully ignorant or misinformed about the basic research evidence on the importance of quality relationships and healthy marriage. They know little about the economic, social, and personal benefits of a healthy marriage and what research has discovered about the patterns that erode versus protect relationships and marriage. Young people have many misconceptions about cohabitation, the responsibilities of parenthood, and what it takes to raise children successfully.

Beyond the Health Paradigm

The curricula we develop and, more importantly, the conversations we have with teens should not be limited to a discourse on avoiding STDs or pregnancy. True, we need to include health concerns, but we also must move beyond the confines of a health paradigm. Sex has meaning—or, rather, sex should have meaning—even if there is no health risk. Our conversations need to include more attention to building healthy relationships, affirming the power and potential of sexual love in the right context and the consequences for having babies when they are unplanned and when parents are young and unwed. We can and should reach for higher ground in our discussions with teens.

And teens want us to do just that. Teen surveys conducted by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy are particularly revealing: two-thirds of teens say their own morals, values, and or religious beliefs—as well as concerns about their future—influence their decisions about sex far more than concerns about pregnancy or STDs.

Perhaps one reason teens are bored with our conventional approaches is that they sense we have nothing of lasting substance to say beyond a description of body parts and clinical risk reduction. We have little to say that truly inspires and helps teens see a “North Star” for their relationships; we have less that makes them think about themselves and their responsibilities in relationship to others—whether it be in a romantic relationship, in their family, with a child that results from a sexual encounter, or in a future marriage. The National Campaign’s survey provides important reminders for us:

  • Ninety-one percent of teens believe that it is important for teens to be given a strong message from society that they should not have sex until they are at least out of high school.
  • Eighty-four percent of teens believe that teen pregnancy prevention should teach young people to be married before they have a child.

Unfortunately, teen pregnancy prevention programs, while emphasizing the importance of waiting until an older age to have a child, do not generally build an awareness of why and how healthy relationships and healthy marriage matters to child well-being. Yet, research shows that merely waiting until one is twenty years or older to have an out-of-wedlock or unintended child does not appear to significantly increase the well-being of mother or child. Age itself is not the key.

Accurate health information is included in Love U2®, (specifically included in the Becoming Sex Smart and Baby Smarts: Through the Eyes of a Child units) but all Love U2® units focus more attention on motivational themes exploring healthy relationship development, the meaning of sexual love, and the consequences of a disconnect between childbearing and marriage. This curriculum sketches out a larger context for helping teens make wise relationship and sexual choices and can be summarized as, “It’s not just about me.” There’s a bigger picture here. It’s about relationships, values, and deeper meanings, as well as the needs of children, family, and community. It is also about building knowledge and real skills.

Marline E. Pearson, M.A.

Marline Pearson, M.A. is the recently retired chair of the sociology department at Madison Area Technical College in Madison, Wisconsin, where she has been teaching for over 25 years. Her teaching foci at the college were Criminology, Marriage and Family, and Relationship Skills. Ms. Pearson’s longstanding concern for high-risk kids and families, combined with her focus on prevention, led to her interest in relationship building. In addition to sociology classes, Ms. Pearson has pioneered a unique relationship skills class as part of a student success initiative. Watch author presentation.

Ms. Pearson’s curriculum, Relationship Smarts PLUS, was the subject of a rigorous, large-scale, five-year evaluation conducted by researchers at Auburn University in Alabama, involving over 5,000 diverse teenagers. Ms. Pearson also developed an adaptation of Relationship Smarts PLUS for vulnerable older teens and young adults, Love Notes: Relationship Skills for Love, Life, and Work. Love Notes has been added to list of teen pregnancy prevention Evidence Based Programs (EBP) maintained by the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. Love Notes was included based on statistically significant decreases in sexual activity, increases in contraceptive use, and avoidance of pregnancy.

Ms. Pearson is also co-author with Scott Stanley and Galena Kline Rhoades of Within My Reach, a nationally recognized relationship skills and decision-making program for helping individuals — primarily single mothers and fathers who struggle with economic hardship—achieve their goals in relationships, family, and marriage.

Additionally, Ms. Pearson co-authored, with Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, Making a Love Connection: Teen Relationships, Pregnancy, and Marriage, a report commissioned and published by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy; authored “Can Kids Get Smart About Marriage: A Veteran Teacher Reviews Some of the Leading Relationship and Marriage Programs,” published by the National Marriage Project (formerly of Rutgers University), and “Reaching for Higher Ground: New Approaches to Teen Sexuality,” published in the Journal of Council on Family Relations. Her classes have been featured in numerous national media, including TIME Magazine, a PBS special, and a companion book.

Ms. Pearson is frequently called upon to discuss teen and young adult relationships and has conducted numerous trainings on this topic, as well as sexuality and marriage skills. Long active in educational improvement, Ms. Pearson created and taught The Critical Literacy Project, an active learning and teaching improvement program at her college for a number of years.

She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and two young adult daughters. She holds an M.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

What Others Have to Say

“Taking this class this year has helped me a lot when making mature healthy decisions. I was in a very controlling and not trusting relationship. I had no freedom in this relationship; he didn’t want me talking, texting or hugging other guys. The first time I experienced or got to see his “real side” was when one of my guy friends hugged me in the hallway. The first thing I saw was his eyes; they turned from happy to an angry glare.

The second thing I saw was when he clenched his teeth and his fists. I want up to my boyfriend, hugged him and gave him a kiss on the cheek. I asked him what was wrong. “You are only mine!” he said “I don’t want you hugging anyone!” I just laughed and told him to calm down and that we would talk about it later after class. I walked in to my class and one of my guy friends said to me “Is your overprotective boyfriend gone?” I looked at him confused thinking he may have heard the conversation me and my boyfriend had.

Later in that class my guy friend explained to me that my boyfriend had told him not to talk or hug me anymore or he would have problems with him. I was more than upset because over the next three weeks he did not change like he told me he was. He kept telling guys not to hug me, or even smile at me.

This is where this curriculum helped me not explode in rage at him. I had already determined it was not a healthy relationship even though I thought or wanted it to be. I used the break up tips since I was so nervous to break up with him. It was a very hard decision but I don’t regret it at all. I know this curriculum helped me to see how unhealthy our relationship was even when I didn’t want to see it.”

Female Student. Hurst, TX

“Taking this class has shown me how to be a better person and really helped me grow. The course that impacted my life the most drastically were the relationships unit. While in class we learned about communication skills and watched several videos on how to handle different life situations and problems. Dating was a key topic. I learned that many people get taken advantage of in relationships and may stay with that person in fear of abuse or they may not even know the relationship is bad.

My freshmen year of high school I had been in a relationship where the guy was overly dramatic and anything I did was wrong. He pushed the thought of sex and physical behavior on me so much I had a breakdown and just cried. He honestly used the famous, “if you loved me you’d have sex with me.” Line. Luckily, I was wise enough to stand up for myself and say no.

This class has taught me what to look for in a guy and respect myself and my needs. I have recently found a great guy my junior year and I am really happy with him. It has opened my eyes. My boyfriend even took the class the year before so it’s nice to know he understands and went through it too. This whole semester has been an overall great and inspiring adventure and I will take all of it to heart. I will be more sympathetic, caring, and thoughtful and help friends and family whenever I can.”

Female Student
Boise, ID

“Love U2: Relationship Smarts PLUS gives teens the knowledge and skills for healthy relationships now and in the future!” Fun and interactive: teens love it!”

Shannon R. KellyChildren’s Aid Society
Family Support Services Manager
Clearfield, PA

“In a society filled with media images that hurry kids toward intimacy, and examples everywhere of relationships gone awry, Marline Pearson fills a huge gap in our children’s education — how to think about and establish meaningful, respectful relationships in a highly sexual society. Caring educators everywhere will want to share Pearson’s astute and thoughtful messages with their youth to help them develop relationship smarts that will last a lifetime. What a quality gift to our children!”

Lynda S. Madison, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist
Director, Family Support & Psychological Services
Children’s Hospital, Omaha
Associate Professor in Pediatrics and Psychiatry
Creighton University Medical School
Author of: The Feelings Book: The Care and Keeping of Your Emotions (Pleasant Company, 2002); Keep Talking: A Mother-Daughter Guide to the Preteen Years (Andrews McMeel, 1999); co-author of What I Wish You Knew: Letters from our Daughters’ Lives and Expert Advice on Staying Connected (Pleasant Company, 2001); and Parenting with Purpose: Progressive Discipline from Birth to Four (Andrews McMeel, 1998).

“This curriculum is a welcome addition that begins to fill a real gap. It talks not just about what’s safe but also what’s right; it discusses relationships, values, and long term plans, not just avoiding specific problems. And, it artfully transcends the tiresome ‘abstinence versus contraception’ debate.”

Sarah Brown, Director
National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy

“THANK YOU for embracing Love U2®. As a physician of 20 years, I have seen dramatic changes in the rise of sexually transmitted diseases, depression and hurt in our teens associated with sexual activity. Your teens need this program and they need you to help them make it work in their lives. No other program that I have seen challenges teens to confront their feelings, their decisions and their behaviors as thoroughly as Love U2®.”

Meg Meeker, M.D.
Author, “Epidemic: How Teen Sex Is Killing Our Kids”
and “Restoring the Teenage Soul”

“. . . a new and exciting frontier in sex education has been embodied in efforts such as the Love U2® curriculum. These efforts tend to teach young people about healthy relationships at the same time they teach them about avoiding risky sexual behavior and the value of waiting. In short, these efforts are focused squarely on trying to help young people understand how to achieve responsible and respectful relationships.”

Isabel Sawhill
Senior Fellow
The Brookings Institution
Before the Ways and Means Committee
Income Security and Family Support Subcommittee
United States House of Representatives
“Solutions to Poverty”
April 26, 2007

“Marline Pearson’s Love U2 series is brilliantly designed to address the deepest desires of teen hearts, while helping them grow their minds in ways that they can more successfully navigate the challenges of their lives….Her approach is wise and compassionate in a way that avoids the kinds of divisions among liberals and conservatives that sometimes paralyze attempts to help teens…Pearson has selected the most essential aspects of our approach (PREP®) and modified them to be usable and relevant for teens….the strategies here address the most basic needs we have in relationships: the need to talk without fighting, the need to speak and be understood, the need to hear what is in the heart of another, and the need to handle conflicts without damaging relationships…”

Scott M Stanley, Ph.D.
University of Denver
PREP Educational Products, Inc.