Tag Archives: relationship education

Adolescent Relationship Skills on a Historical Handcart Trek

by Kelly Roberts

Educational legacies and the encompassing culture

School legend buzz passed down from varsity level big brothers or sisters to elementary siblings is a powerful thing.  By the time the eldest child in a family gets through their K-12 education, the rest know what to expect. And regardless if the information is exact or not, it still helps.  It helps the younger children set their expectations. They learn a person can actually survive high school regardless of their fear of the unknown. They learn about the teachers, the environment, the traditions, the rivalries and the territory.

And in complementary fashion, the school learns about the students.  The staff learns the younger siblings are “connected” to former students of earlier years.  The faculty get to know the parents, the family style, the support structures and unique characteristics.  They gain an understanding of a given family legacy.

If a multiple sibling lineage isn’t in place, however, traditional school buzz is still passed along.  Sometimes parents of single children share stories.  Neighborhood children have “teaching” times where they fill in the new kid on the block regarding the school scoop.  And sometimes, the teachers even fill this role themselves.  They might share with a new group of students “what was done before,” or examples of “prior rituals or ideas from former years.”  In other words – an educational culture is developed and propitiated by those who manage it, who progress through it, and who contribute to its support.

Group trekking across the open praire, pulling their handcarts as they go


But educational cultures don’t just happen in schools.  They develop within families themselves, extra-curricular venues, and within spiritual formal or activity-based settings.  We’ll call this type of education a “naturally occurring” learning system: a system that has been in place for a period of time, that’s accepted by a group or society and is expected based upon precedent.

Naturally occurring lessons are a comfortable and “natural” way to learn about life…and in this post, lifetime relationships.

Such is the case with the Hand Cart Trail excursions planned, managed, populated and supported by families and teens within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  Or, as the members of the culture refer to themselves: The “LDS.”  The history, traditions, rituals and legacies woven into the fabric of these Hand Cart Trails encompasses many educational threads.

These teens were given a baby to protect as they navigated the trails


Another essay could be written about character qualities such as determination, planning or leadership.  However, this one is about relationship education for the participating LDS teens.

These Hand Cart Trails provide a three day “workshop” for much of what is needed to prepare for intimate partnerships in the future of those who make the trek.  One location for these journeys taking place is right here in northeastern Oklahoma…on an 80,000 acre Pawhuska ranch owned by the Sooner Cattle Company.

History of the Hand Cart Trails

People of the Mormon faith used handcarts to move their belongings and supplies across the U.S. in the mid 1800s as they made their journey toward Salt Lake City.  There were many hardships, joys and challenges experienced along these treks. As part of a historically based “coming of age” transition into adolescence, LDS groups across the U.S. now re-enact the Handcart Treks.  Included in these 3 or 4 day journeys are games, lessons and activities.  However, the learning many times takes on a life of it’s own.  Relationship education lessons are taught to hundreds of LDS adolescents although the concepts are never named as such.

Lessons Learned on the Trail

The open prarie terrain can get rough, and pulling the hand carts is no easy task


The learning context for these teens is hard core.  One thing you’ll notice by the photos is that the participants don period dress for the journey.  Although treks can take place at various times of the year, the featured excursion happened in early summer and temperatures hit the 90s…or higher.  And, just as their ancestors did years ago, those involved pull the handcarts by hand across the bumpy bunches of Love and Native prairie grasses for three full days.

The terrain is rough, the wind is hot, the clothes are heavy…and a few of the lessons taken in are detailed in the following text, along with the explanation of how they are delivered:

The role of mentors – New experiences such as this particular trek can throw adolescents for a loop.  Although they are equipped with the energy and the attitudes to accomplish the task before them, they have not yet covered the territory.  The mothers, fathers, or community leaders accompanying them on the journey have.  The proper supplies to pack, contingency planning, expectations for particular parts of the journey, and how to set the pace are all lessons the mentors have previously learned.  And, as they hand over that knowledge to those who have never made the trip, they also build relationships with the teens.

As the teens learn to trust the mentors, they learn they are readily accessible resources for life wisdom beyond the open prairie.  Therefore, when rough patches come along in the future, the teens will have already had a history of working with mentors – seeking out advice while navigating the bumps along the proverbial future-marriage trail.

Negotiations of Responsibilities

In order for any large operation to be successful, there is a dividing up and a negotiation of various roles and responsibilities.  If someone in charge of water neglects their duties, the group suffers.  If someone in charge of repairs isn’t providing regular maintenance checks on the carts and equipment, the group could later be halted until repairs are made.  If the cooks aren’t prepared, then the group isn’t energized for the next leg of the trek.

Roles and responsibilities are one of the twelve core areas marriage preparatory education should cover (Olsen & Olsen-Sigg, 2000).  Practicing under the big sky…and being successful…lays the groundwork for future hope of success.

Fun and Friendship

One of the major components of the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP) is a lesson entitled “Fun and Friendship” (Stanley, Markman & Jenkins, 2004).  So how did this particular group experience a little fun on the grueling, sweltering trail?  Well, it so happens that they came upon a river just about the time they felt they couldn’t go any further.

A young pioneer rests in the shade after cooling off in the river


If you know anything about teens on a hot day with a water source around, you know what happened next.  Was this supported by the mentors?  Absolutely.  They joined in as well.

Will they teens remember this?  Absolutely.  Will they remember that they adults joined in the fun?  I’m not sure, but their instincts may remember.  At some point when things get tough in their future marriages and they see a “river” ahead, instinctively taking the option to jump in could be enough to kick-start their relationship with relief and renewal.  Resting together doesn’t hurt either.

Empathetic Response Toward Each Other

One of the most intense and “grown up” lessons learned on the trail took place as a surprise to the members who were on their first trek.  As happens in traditional “ropes courses” during a team building exercise, there are certain elements that have a high level of difficulty.  The trail was no different.

About half-way through day two, the group encountered an exceptionally steep drop of approximately 75-100 feet down the face of a ridge in order to continue on their journey.  And…they there was an equal rise to go back up on the other side…to get through the entire area and back onto the trail.

It took all the energy, ingenuity and resourcefulness the group could muster to move the entire cart train down the face and back up again.  They struggled, problem solved and stopped to rest when they could balance the carts in a safe place…all the while facing the reality that if someone slipped or stumbled, it could impact many others in front or behind them.

Cavalry commissioning males into the Morman Battalion. Yes, the guy looks like Wilford Brimley.


As the last of the group pulled up and over the second ridge, they were met by soldiers dressed in Cavalry uniforms.  It was quiet on the prairie as the sweating and exhausted pioneers waited to see what was going to happen.  The answer was unexpected, as was the next set of instructions.

The leader of the Cavalry told the group that all the men must go with them immediately – that they had been called into service and they needed to report right away.  With hardly time to say goodbye, they were urged to leave “at once.”

Receiving instructions at the point the Cavalry met the group.


Even worse, the women were instructed that they couldn’t keep the cart train in the high place they were currently positioned.  They would have to turn around and cover the exact terrain they had just navigated without the men.

A description provided by one of the fathers on the trail filled in details of what emotions the young men began experiencing at that point.  His daughter filled in the gaps with the perspective of the women left behind…

From the men’s perspective: They knew how difficult the journey had just been for the entire group.  Their thoughts immediately turned toward their female counterparts.  They worried about them taking the entire train back up and down the ridge.  They worried about how they would manage the tasks they had been assigned.  They worried about their safety.  It was difficult for them to think about their own responsibilities – to protect their territory and hold their commissioned position, when they knew that their counterparts had just taken on twice the load as they had before the change in plans.

Their empathetic response toward those they had befriended on the trail was nurtured.  And, they were able to talk about their struggles with the older mentors who were at their side.

From the female’s perspective: Although the Cavalry commission was “pretend,” the females experienced at least a portion of what it might be like to say goodbye to a partner who might not return – who was leaving on a call of duty and may face danger or challenges unknown. It wasn’t real, but they could imagine what it must feel like for their male counterparts to face life-threatening work.  Again – the empathetic responses toward those they had befriended on the trail was nurtured.  And, they were able to talk about their struggles with the older female mentors who were at their side.

The women also experienced overwhelming feelings of not being able to accomplish their challenge at hand.  When they watched half their group leave, and arguably the physically stronger half, the situation seemed daunting – maybe impossible.

Women pulling carts back up the ridge to safety.


At this point, the oldest female on the trail rallied the troupes.  She gave them what was basically a vigorous pep talk.  She said, “Well ladies – come on!  We know what we have to do, so let’s get to it.  We can do this…I know we can.  YOU can do this!”  To look upon a mentor three or even four times their age and see the confidence conveyed was evidently a powerful thing for the young women.

They figured out what they needed to do, they reassigned responsibilities, they grabbed the handcarts…and with every ounce of strength left in their bodies they returned the entire train to a safer place for camp.


Naturally occurring family life education happens every day.  The Hand Cart Treks provide three challenging days full of memorable experiences that include all the lessons detailed here, and many more.

This article isn’t a scientific analysis of the efficacy of naturally occurring relationship education.  It is, however, an illustration of one of the many ways this phenomenon happens.  And, as many varieties there are of groups and cultures that exist, there are ways in which this education can be delivered.  So my question for you is this: Where in your own community can you help instill or enhance life changing relationship education for the adolescents in your life?

If you come to an answer, then I encourage you to rally the troupes, make the plans, negotiate the roles and set out on the trail to make it happen.  You never know when you’ll meet a river, or be called into duty during your adventure.

Happy trails!

Seeking H-E-L-P Can Be H-E-Double Toothpicks

A small farm town is great for overhearing comments like these:  “Oh, he has heart trouble?  Better not let him out on that tractor during harvest.  You won’t know if he’s had any chest pains until he gets every last acre of that crop in!”  Then everyone around bursts into laughter, nods their heads, and asks to hear more about Farmer Brown’s cardiac condition. However…

It’s a human law of nature, isn’t it?  We laugh the loudest at that which rings the greatest truths?

Over the last ten years or so, I’ve studied one area about relationships more than others, and it’s because I know so many “Farmer Browns” in Oklahoma:  the phenomenon of seeking help.  Some of the reasons I began researching this topic are personal.  My own husband and I struggled with seeking outside assistance when we were having marital issues around the third year of our marriage.  When we finally DID access couples therapy services, however, it only took two sessions for both of us to realize that our marriage was much greater than the two of us sitting in the room.  It took longer for our emotions toward each other to repair, but once we made the decision to stick out our relationship we looked at all our other decisions in a very different way.  And, recently celebrating our 25th anniversary felt really great.

Another reason I’ve spent so much time researching this topic is because it’s such a pervasive problem.  I’ve only found one paper over the years by an anthropologist who wrote specifically about Oklahomans’ inability to ask for help when they need it, but through my own research and that of my colleagues, I’ve found out a little more.  Here’s what I know about folks in Red Dirt Country (AND for the rest of the US…I have national data sets as well).:

1) It’s easier for people to tell their friends to go get help than it is for them to go themselves.  A full 95% of respondents from one of my surveys stated that they would “encourage their friends to seek premarital or marital education,” or “therapy.”  However, around 60-70% of most populations said they thought they might try it themselves – many of that population responded “only when it’s the last option.”  It’s easier to suggest to others than take our own advice, it seems.

2) The number one constraint to seeking marital education OR therapy services among Oklahomans in 2003 was the concern about “getting the other person in the relationship to agree to the idea.”  In other words, it wasn’t the individual’s attitude or belief about seeking help as much as it was their fear or anxiety about bringing up the discussion, or anticipating how their partner might respond to their request.  So it seems that sometimes what we think about others, or how they might react, is even more powerful than what we believe for ourselves.

3) On a better note, however, a greater majority of people were more willing to get couples counseling, attend marriage or relationship education, or other type of couples service (retreat, take an inventory, etc), than they were to seek individual help or education for themselves.  So, they are thinking of others or their relationship over themselves, for the most part.  This is important information – knowing that someone might make a decision for the sake of another over themselves is valuable when we’re talking about relationships.

These are just a few tiny bits of data out of a very large amount of information but I think they might be useful for a couple of reasons.  First of all, what this information tells us is that it’s NORMAL to feel conflicted, worried or resistant to opening up our relationship to outside help.  Some even feel that going to an educational workshop over relationship skills will “make things worse;” that if they just ignore the issue and keep the boat steady, maybe things will blow over.

Others feel ill-equipped to know where to begin when asking their partner to go with them.  This is NORMAL too!  If you’ve been arguing or the two of you readily step into “blaming mode,” then it’s easy to see how something well-intended could turn sour quickly.  The very best way to bring up a topic like this is to make sure to “own your own wishes” (say, “I’d really like for you to go with me.  Here’s what we can learn.  Would you please think about this?”)  and resist the urge to blame or to criticize, or make things personal (for example, “Maybe this will keep us from arguing about the dogs.”)  If you talk about what you can GAIN, and avoid bringing up what is WRONG, chances are the conversation will go better.

Telling your partner about skills the two of you can learn is a much clearer message than telling them what’s been wrong.  They already know what’s gone wrong; reiteration isn’t needed in a committed relationship.  You know each other very well.

Finally, if you happen to be the one who is thinking about inviting your partner to begin therapy or attend a relationship education workshop, having the information handy is also important.  Don’t know where to start?  I’ve got four links for you I’ll share at the end of this article – you can look up the information right now!

So, what have we learned?  Seeking help is hard.  People are scared to ask their partners to go with them.  People are willing to do something for others over themselves.  How does this work together?  Well, the fact that “people are willing to do something for others” actually increases the chances that your partner will accept an invitation from you.  Now, all you have to do is ask.  Good luck…and let us know if you need extra support.

Here are those links I mention:

For marriage or relationships education for all adults, ages 18 or over:  http://www.okmarriage.org/

For a national resource, check out this directory of programs: http://www.smartmarriages.com/app/Directory.BrowsePrograms

To find a couple or relationship therapist:  http://www.therapistlocator.net/index.asp

Or, to look into an online community about couples, go here: http://twoofus.org/index.aspx

For more information about help seeking or for citations to the research used in this article, please contact:  kelly.m.roberts@okstate.edu

The Ping of Your Relational Sonar

I liked this photo so much that I decided to use it and give nanukphotos.com a free ad shout-out. While I'm not in the mood to pay $60.00 for the rights to use it (we do our own photography, although I do purchase iStock photos occasionally), I am willing to reference back to them and their very cool work. The photo shows the same sky type of sky mentioned in this essay.

It’s about 9:00 p.m. Labor Day night and I’m putting the last check into the last envelope as I finish paying my monthly bills.  The day has been a long one with the majority of my time spent in my office reading and working on my statistics homework.  I get up from my chair, stretch, grab the stamped envelopes on my desk and head to the mailbox.

I head down the long slope of the paved driveway.  It’s getting dark and my mind switches from wondering if my bare feet are going to find a wayward stone (protective-mode thoughts) to the overwhelmingly beautiful twilight sky (refreshing, happy thoughts).  My pace slows and I remember that my hair is pulled up into a ponytail, bound with a brown velvet scrunchie; perfect for a little pillow to rest my head on the concrete.  I drop to the warm pavement, lay down, breathe in the cooling air and take a few moments to study the sky more closely.

It’s beautiful out tonight.  The sun has dropped below the horizon so far that only the slightest hint of light shows along the western line.  From there sweeping upward is light blue, medium blue, dark blue and the deepest midnight blue right over my head.  The stars are beginning to show and as I lay still and focus, more and more tiny lights begin to peek out of the deep blue.  I can now see about 30-40 stars, but one in particular catches my eye.  It’s brighter than the rest and seems to be moving.  I assume at this point that it’s a satellite and I watch it travel ever-so-slowly across my view.

My body begins to relax as I start realizing how many layers of sound are filling up my ears.  I can hear the distant click of a katydid, intermittent bursts of cicadas, a constant tree frog sound, and another rhythmic frog sound over that.  There is a dog somewhere in the distance that barks occasionally and every three or four minutes a car passes down the street, headed toward their homes for the evening.  I look around for the satellite and find it again.  I started thinking about my husband.

On the way down to the mailbox, I had hugged him goodnight because he was heading to bed.  He gets up at 4:00 a.m. every morning to go to work.  I had said, “I missed you today.”  He said, “I missed you too.”  We talked a bit about the homework I was doing and said goodnight.

I watch the satellite another minute more and my mind drifts back to a conversation I had last week with a colleague.  He had written a blog entry for contract work we do over the topic of “checking in” with your spouse during the day.  I’m watching the satellite and thinking about that topic when I link a thought about the sonar pings made by satellites, submarines or other devices that also “check in” with those monitoring their progress.  I begin to play that sound in my head and think about parents monitoring their children as they grow and develop, spouses checking-in with each other to make sure all is good between them, leaders checking in with their team members in places of employment.  Ping, ping, ping.  The satellite has now passed two stars as I watch it continue to creep across the sky.

I start thinking about satellite orbits and how they decay over time.  Without the sonar or other monitoring devices, there could be no awareness of how that orbit had decayed or whether it was stable and in good working order.  Mother mammals of tiny babies constantly check to see if all their offspring are accounted for, birds guard their nests, alpha males of various species watch over their herds in case they are threatened.

I want to think about this balance or out-of-balance checking in between couples just a bit more so I reluctantly get up, walk the rest of the way to the mailbox (I only step on one small pebble), and head back to my office.  On my way back up the driveway I hear a car leave our neighbor’s driveway, muffled rap music coming from the interior.  I wonder what type of sonar is going on between he and his parents as he drives down the road.  I get to my office and begin searching for sound files of sonar pings.  I find some cool files of a WW II submarine sonar.  CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO THE SOUND.

While I’m playing with these sonar sound files I begin thinking, “They sound a little bit like a heartbeat.”  My mind drifts back to all my relatives who have been in the hospital with heart monitoring devices…ping,  ping,  beat…beat.  I think about the inordinate amount of journal articles I’ve been reading the past six months over a person’s physical well being and how it relates to their relational well being.  People who are stressed because of unhealthy relationships actually have different vagal tones when on a heart monitor than when their relationships are better, or when they feel closer to their partners.

I make a mental note of this thought process and head back into the bedroom to tell Mick goodnight a second time.  I need to check in with him and make sure our orbit is not in decay.  He’s fine.  We’re fine.   I’m glad I check, however.  He tells me goodnight a second time and that “All systems are go.”

How about yours?