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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).

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