Creating Shared Meaning and Purpose: The Arts and Encouraging Committed Relationships to Improve Outcomes for Children

By Hannah Grannemann

In this blog post, I’ll discuss Strategy L: Encourage the formation and maintenance of committed two-parent families, in particular the recommendation to Study, adopt and implement evidence-based programs that effectively encourage young people to be part of committed relationships when considering parenthood and briefly touch on Strategy M on reproductive health education.

Here’s the understatement of the century: marriage and parenting are incredibly personal and complicated processes. They are impacted by our own upbringing, the views and values of friends, co-workers and acquaintances, the cultures and sub-cultures that surround us. The Opportunity Task Force acknowledged and dealt with this complexity in their work (including acknowledging our state’s “shameful legacy” of forced sterilization), ultimately adopting inclusive language around supporting freedom to choose the best arrangement of partnership and parenthood and empowering women with information and options around contraception and delaying pregnancy.

How can the arts support thoughtful individual choices around creating committed partnerships and families?

While I’ve been doing my best impression of a policy wonk in my recent posts (especially this one on workforce development), my answer to this question takes me to contemplating the human spirit.

One of the most important impacts participating in the arts has is developing shared meaning and shared purpose. A committed relationship and parenting at its deepest level is nothing if not an endeavor to create shared meaning and purpose. The arts can “encourage the formation and maintenance of committed two-parent families” as the Opportunity Task Force recommends by nurturing the individuals identities and the shared expression that is marriage and parenthood.

This is no small or esoteric matter: this is the stuff of creating relationships that are psychologically healthy for all involved, creating a foundation of interpersonal support (aka social capital) which is sorely needed if people living in poverty are going to be able to fight and survive all the forces that our society is throwing at them that makes it so incredibly hard to survive and thrive. How do any of us get through tough times, situations or lives without the support of others? We don’t. As social creatures, we need deep relationships with people who understand us and support us if we are ever going to have a chance.

Sparking Connection

Shared experiences of partners around something other than the kids or stressors of life can be something positive that just might be the spot of brightness that allows a deep partnership to evolve. Of course this doesn’t have to be the arts, but the arts do make explicit many implicit nuances of our human existence that have the potential to spark deeper understanding of another person, if shared and used in this way.

I’m not even talking about making time for a trip to a museum or theater. Pop culture for this purpose is just fine: popular music, television, movies, books are all great ways for people to connect. The point is to use the arts or cultural experiences as a way of talking, bonding and getting to know each other as two people consider making a commitment to each other, or deepen a commitment they already have, even if from outside circumstances such as being brought to a lifelong connection through an unexpected pregnancy. (Remember, we are talking about how to make life better for children of fragile families.)  This kind of conversation might even be a safe way for young people to learn how to disagree in their relationships, a key component to relationship longevity. Practicing disagreeing respectfully about a character on TV could be a way to learn how to handle later, much more important (and inevitable) disagreements around co-habitation, money and parenting.

You Being You

People can use the arts for their own self-expression and ways of describing themselves to each other. Your own writing or artwork can help someone else to understand you better. The process will make the creator feel more empowered and know themselves better. When shared, it has the potential for being a part of building the respect needed to create healthy relationships.

As I’ve mentioned before, the arts are a well-known way to keep at-risk students in school and on track for graduation. Why? They are more engaged with school and these students are using the arts as a way to get to know themselves and expand their view of what their life can be, so they feel optimistic and invested in their own future, yielding positive choices. This same process for getting young people to continue their education can help young people with developing the knowledge, self-respect and empowerment to make positive choices around relationship and sexuality, too.

Other Applications

To address concrete health issues, using the arts to communicate about health and relationship issues is not uncommon. I’ve come across plays about relationship violence for teen audiences, art shows by teen mothers, writing programs of all kinds, from single fathers to people who are incarcerated. The arts can communicate the human element and make issues more tangible to young people.

Children’s involvement in the arts can bring parents together as well. I mentioned several parent-child programs in my earlier post that could also help to deepen parents bonds between each other as well as the child. Parents joining together to support their children’s interests and development may be one of the strongest forces to bring them together in relationship.

All of this could be included in the ways that Charlotte identifies to adopt programs and policies that encourage young people to be a part of committed relationships: teaching them the skills (yes, skills that can be learned) to creating healthy relationships and build the foundation for being great parents. To repeat what I said in my post on parenting in early childhood, the arts could be an “x-factor” that brings it all together to make a real difference, or it could be a primary means to move the needle.

Using the arts to empower young people during a crucial period of developing their own sense of themselves and how they relate to others is powerful. If the arts were to be used thoughtfully for this purpose, it would enhance any program on health and relationships. Why? Because the arts touch and reveal what is deepest within us: our spirit.


HannahHannah Grannemann is an arts administrator based in Charlotte, NC. She has worked in theatre and the arts for 17 years, including with Yale Repertory Theatre, the Guthrie Theater, PlayMakers Repertory Company, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte and as a fundraising and strategic planning consultant. She is a Board member of Arts NC, the statewide advocacy group and Theatre for Young Audiences/USA and serves on an advisory council for the Arts and Science Council of Charlotte-Mecklenburg. Hannah holds an MFA in Theater Management from Yale School of Drama and an MBA from Yale School of Management.

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