There’s a lot that teen-age boys and girls don’t know about each other, says Eleni Tsarhopoulos, who spoke to parents Oct. 26 at TMI – The Episcopal School of Texas. “Even in a post-feminist world, we are not all exactly the same,” says the Boston-based health and wellness educator. “There are profound differences between boys and girls when it comes to relationships.”
Tsarhopoulos conducts a yearly series of classes called Healthy Relationships for students in 9th, 11th and 12th grades at TMI and other independent schools around the country. During a week at the school, she meets with students and directs them in discussions about the way each gender approaches relationships.
“We live in an intensely sexualized culture, yet we can’t even say the names of (some) human body parts without laughing or feeling ashamed,” says Tsarhopoulos, who spends her first sessions with students explaining basic biological differences between the genders. For instance, females are hard-wired to release oxytocin, a bonding hormone, when beginning an intimate relationship, while males are flooded with testosterone, an aggression hormone.
In coeducational classes, Tsarhopoulos asks boys and girls to divide into gender groups and make lists of how they think the opposite sex views them and relationships. Among the biggest surprises, she says, are that “Boys want to be loved, too,” and that some of the riskier things girls do to get boys’ attention “are the very things that will keep those boys from liking them, ever.”
Healthy Relationships classes also tackle media representations, such as rap lyrics and music videos. When Tsarhopoulos reads one especially misogynistic song, she says, the class usually goes silent, considering the attitudes it projects. “It’s very easy to think you’re not listening to the words,” she says, “but when (sexually explicit) material is everywhere, it’s impossible not to be affected.”
Tsarhopoulos, who holds degrees in psychology and health education, stresses abstinence for teens. “From my perspective, students this age are not ready to be in sexual relationships,” she says. What she hopes her classes do for students is to teach them to “respect each other’s strengths (and to) support each other’s weaknesses” until they are mature enough to form relationships with a loving, committed partner.
To parents of teens, Tsarhopoulos counsels keeping the lines of communication open. “Don’t lecture, but let them know you’re ready to listen,” she says. “You are your children’s first teacher, and the way you model relationships is more powerful than anything they’re absorbing from popular culture.”