During a taxi ride in the Tri-State area recently, my driver told me about his son’s weekend adventures as a high school student. He claimed that he always drove a group of boys to and from parties in the swanky neighborhoods, presumably to prevent drunk driving. He said every boy would come home with 5-6 phone numbers. He wished the girls would make the boys work a little harder. “All they want to do is dress like models and sleep around, and I can’t get my son to think about anything else, either.”
There is something that could help teens be more confident and happy, something that would protect them from harmful diseases, and something that would ultimately protect them from emotional damage. Sounds like a clickable, trendy parenting article, right? The answer? Chastity. Hmmm…now I’m guessing no one wants to write the article. While I feel sad for the parents of teens in these kinds of situations, I feel worse for teens who have not embraced the values that will be most helpful to their well-being.
Currently the federal government embraces a Sexual Risk Reduction approach to sexual education. This mentality is regularly reflected in the arguments of pro-abortion advocates: “You can’t stop teen sexuality.” So they target the teen population with information about how to “reduce the physical consequences of sex through the use of contraception.” I find this approach problematic because I think the general message should be to avoid risk behavior, known as the abstinence, or Sexual Risk Avoidance approach. Embracing a risk avoidance approach would allow teachers to share information and encourages skills “that are intended to help them avoid all the possible negative consequences of teen sex, including but not limited to the physical consequences of STDs and pregnancy.”(See NAEA July 2013 p.6).
Although unpopular in pop culture, an abstinence approach is popular in real life. Parents and Teens both support it. Pulse Opinion Research found that 85% of parents believe that all youth benefit from skills that help them choose to wait for sex. It is usually impossible to find something that 85% of people agree on, so statistically that is solid public policy. Youth feel about the same way, and the US Dept. of Health and Human Services found that 84% of adolescents oppose sex at their age. (See NAEA July 2013 p.8-9).
Also in real life is the fact that abstinence education can work. For example, kids in Pennsylvania were divided in to four groups and taught 1) an abstinence program targeting reduced sex, 2) a safer-sex program targeting condom use 3) comprehensive program targeting both reduced sex and condom use, and 4) a control group taught general health promotion. In the end only the abstinence intervention significantly reduced sexual initiation and neither program increased condom use. The abstinence education did not negatively impact condom use in those that did decide to become sexually active. The author of this study concluded that the single focus approach was key to success. (For this and other studies click here.) I found it unsurprising that most public health rhetoric is against this type of education, but glad to see that some groups are finding success.
We know that in order to successfully transmit a message to our kids, we cannot be hypocritical. If we are simultaneously telling kids to delay their sexual experiences while also giving them strategies for handling them, it will seem like an endorsement of their activity. With school starting soon, it is a good idea to learn what our district’s policy is on sexual education (and don’t wait until middle school, since many districts are starting this kind of education with elementary students). I plan to make sure that our values are clearly communicated to my kids here at home so that they can think critically about the mixed message they are bound to receive in public school.
Criticism of abstinence education has roots in the observation of dangerous behaviors of covering up illicit sexual activity to avoid parental disapproval (among other consequences). Pregnancy prevention and termination are widely-touted as the solution. To me these solutions are short-sighted. Teaching kids to be mature and cautious in their sexual activity is like pro-active, preventative health measures. Things like taking vitamins and exercising don’t cure a heart attack, so should we go around saying there is no point to emphasize them…we should just rely on heart surgeons to solve heart disease? Big picture solutions are always more nuanced, harder work, and difficult to prove among a composite of correlative factors. But ultimately abstinence is focused on the correct goal of ensuring that children are brought into the world by parents committed to the process.
Abstinence is more than just a good health choice. Like all physical, and temporal commandments, it has a spiritual purpose. Remaining sexually pure is to remain free from a sin that will create heartbreak. Teaching our children to prepare for the temple blessings of a celestial marriage and posterity born into that covenant will prepare them for happiness. Often we do a good job modeling this through our own behavior and testimony.
Unfortunately, we still might not be doing enough. This article is a must-read for any parent with a child over the age of 8: Teaching Chastity and Virtue. As Matthew O. Richardson points out:
In surveying over 200 active young single Latter-day Saints, I found that only 15 percent considered their parents to be the primary source of information regarding sexual issues. These young members said they learned about this important topic primarily from friends or peers, the Internet, media, entertainment, textbooks, extended family, or their Church leaders.
That is a shockingly low number, considering how important the topic. He continues,
Comments from my informal survey of young Latter-day Saints repeatedly centered on wishing their parents were more open or willing to talk about sexually related topics. These young adults expressed that they not only wanted their parents to be involved in the process, but they also wished their parents would “talk with them rather than talk at them.” They longed for conversations that were “natural,” “normal,” “comfortable,” and far less “awkward.” This should motivate parents to work harder in being approachable, available, natural, and unruffled by a topic, situation, or even timing. If there is a price to be paid for parents to effectively teach their children about things that matter most, it is for parents to act in ways that help their children feel comfortable and safe in talking about all subjects—especially the more personal ones.
We need to commit to find a way to communicate with our kids so that they can develop a habit of relying on us for their information and values. After packing our summer with activities like roller coasters, beaches, swim lessons, cousin camp outs, and even a cruise, I stopped myself for a minute and realized that I was letting the most important lessons slip because we had fallen out of our habits. A new school year is a great time to renew my effort to make sure I fulfilling my role as their spiritual teacher. As things get busy I cannot lose sight of my ultimate goal of teaching my children the gospel of Jesus Christ and guiding them in their efforts to learn and live His teachings.
As President Monson said, Perhaps the teacher you and I remember best is the one who influenced us most. She may not have used a chalkboard nor possessed a college degree, but her lessons were everlasting and her concern genuine. Yes, I speak of Mother. And in the same breath, I also include Father. In reality, every parent is a teacher. (Only a Teacher).
Many parents are doing a great job. I loved this video from a group of young people talking about how they understand the value of chastity. I hope my kids can have a similar confidence in their understanding of their own power to keep the commandments and enjoy the blessings in store for them.