“An Open Letter from Shaunti Feldhahn in response to the Focus on the Family Singapore school program controversy”
To the leaders of Focus on the Family Singapore:
I have seen the news reports about the current questions and concerns raised by a student about the FOTF program taught in schools. It appears that some significant portions of your program were based on my research with men, women, teenage boys and teenage girls over the past 12 years. Even though I do not have much time to reply, I wanted to get you a little bit of information and offer a perspective, in case it helps you discuss this with the government. Especially since I see that the latest news is that the Ministry of Education is saying (at least for now) that the program will cease by the end of the year.
Here is my quick perspective:
In 2009, the government agency then known as MCYS brought in me and Jeff to conduct programs for several thousand young professional singles and college students, as well as train-the-trainer sessions for several hundred leaders and counselors who work in the marriage and family arena. (I met several Focus on the Family Singapore representatives at those train-the-trainer sessions.) At those events, Jeff and I shared the results of our many years of rigorous research, as published in books such as For Women Only and For Men Only as well as the teenage versions that were based on extensive studies with high school and college students.
The Government of Singapore brought us in because they were (and are) trying to encourage the establishment of healthy relationships and, eventually, marriages and families. This was a highly successful series of events that we hope to do again at some point in the future. These efforts by the government were designed to be both encouraging and preventative rather than simply fixing problems. The idea was to AVOID the social and economic problems seen so often in the U.S. as we have trended away from healthy family formation. Every sociologist in the world essentially acknowledges that a married two-parent family gives children (and the couple themselves) the greatest chance of thriving in life. Not that single parents cannot give children a great start, but that the odds are much better in a healthy marriage. And a healthy marriage has much better odds of forming if young people have healthy understanding of relationships and each other from the beginning.
Thus, the government brought us in to share our research not only to help individuals, but also as a way to help independent organizations and counselors create and deliver the very types of ‘healthy relationships programs’ that FOTF then created for the school system. (As you noted, your program is not a sexuality program but one for healthy relationships.) Because our research is extensive, scientifically rigorous and statistically valid across all age groups and ethnic backgrounds, it provides a good foundation for a strong education in those key elements that young people and married couples most need to know.
One of the key reasons why a good train-the-trainer program was needed, was that this research can also be misunderstood, as demonstrated by the Facebook post from Agatha Tan. While the vast majority of readers (and, it sounds like, your program participants) are supportive and find it extremely helpful and life-changing, there are some who, historically, misunderstand or misread the research. A clear example is the explanation of the ultra-visual brain wiring of men and boys. We are careful to say that this male brain wiring makes it difficult if not impossible for a man to avoid noticing a woman who is dressed provocatively (only 2% said they wouldn’t notice) – but that each man has a choice of how to handle that reaction (to respect the woman in his thought life and actions, or not). And yet there are always a few women who completely miss what we are saying and arrive at the conclusion that we’re saying “boys will be boys and there’s nothing we can do about it.” Similarly, as you know, since many men want to honor women but find themselves confronted by explicit images they would prefer not to see, we think it is important to emphasize that BOTH men and women, boys and girls, have a responsibility here. We emphasize the ned for men and boys to respect women, but also for women and girls to respect men. We strongly disagree with the idea that teaching the brain wiring and mutual respect is somehow contributing to a “rape culture.” That is a clear misunderstanding, and it confuses the real and important issue and teaching that will help both men and women.
It is my hope that you will ask for a meeting with the government ministry that is currently considering whether or not to discontinue your program. I urge you to show them that this is based on years of rigorous research, and to ask them to consider that this type of healthy relationships program is exactly the sort of program the government was wanting to create to educate and encourage young people now, in order to form healthy families later. While I don’t know the specifics of what your program involves, and I’m assuming there are always improvements and changes that can be made to any initiative, I hope that you and the government officials involved do not give up on something that already has, and will continue to, set a great foundation for Singapore’s future.