Raising Children of Peace
Edited by Farley and Betsy Jones
Children of Peace
Raising Peaceful Teens
Raising "peaceful teens" may seem like a contradiction in terms, but there are some things that parents, teachers or other concerned adults can do to make the teen years a little less traumatic. The area of love and sexuality is probably one of the greatest challenges we face in our lives and certainly a number one worry of parents of teens.
In many cultures, including the US until about thirty years ago, strong prohibitions against unmarried sex protected most, if not all, teens from the pain of pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease. In the age of AIDS and Calvin Klein, that is no longer the case. Media bombardment with sexually stimulating messages creates an environment that encourages and even demands that teens be impulsive and pleasure-oriented at the very time when doing so can have life-damaging or lethal consequences.
Despite these negative circumstances, which at times can seem overwhelming to parents and teachers, there are reasons for optimism and hope. In the short space available I would like to draw from some issues discussed in a publication I wrote called Sex and Love: Teaching Our Children in the Age of AIDS.
First, let's be clear about why it is important, in a culture that promotes so-called "safe sex;' that parents and teachers take a clear pro-abstinence position with their teens. There is thought-provoking research indicating that even if students could be persuaded to practice some form of "safer sex" that would give perfect protection against disease and unwanted pregnancy, there are still some important reasons not to have sex as a teenager. Pediatrics journal published a study of the behavioral risks associated with loss of virginity in boys and girls. The report indicated that sexually active girls had: six times greater risk of attempting suicide, eighteen times greater risk of running away from home, ten times greater risk of using marijuana, and five times greater risk of being suspended from school. 1
Similar associations were reported for boys who'd initiated sex although there was no significant increased risk for suicide. To quote the authors of the study:
We believe that it is essential for health providers to explore the issue of sexual activity and the other risk behaviors that are strongly linked to it in young adolescents. Engaging in one activity significantly increases the risk for the others. Each of the associated behaviors carries with it additional biological and psychosocial risk. 2
It should be clear that having sex, particularly in adolescence, is not a neutral event. A study done for the Office of Population Affairs, (Dept. of Health and Human Services) revealed that teen sex can have an adverse impact on academic performance. The chief evaluator of the study, John O.G. Billy concluded,
Intercourse behavior strongly, negatively affects the self-reported academic grades of white males. Making the intercourse transition and the level of sexual activity thereafter negatively affects the importance a white female attaches to going to college. 3
Since the sample size of African and Hispanic American students was insufficient, more research needs to be done to measure the impact of sexual involvement in those communities.
Teen sexual behavior should be seen for what it often is, acting out behavior reflecting deeper problems such as sexual abuse, low self-esteem, poor relationships, and a serious lack of vision and goals. Giving contraceptives solves none of these problems, and in many cases serves as an enabler to continue exploitative or self-destructive behaviors and even make them worse.
I am firmly convinced that the serious and growing problems of teen suicide, violence, and depression are linked to unmarried teen sex. Sex is powerful and can wreak havoc in the emotionally volatile world of teens. As a teen speaker at a Save Sex rally in New Jersey said, "Just as a fire needs to be limited to a fireplace, so does sex need to be limited to marriage:' In its proper place it is wonderful. Outside that area of safety it can ruin lives.
Unfortunately, I have encountered a widespread reticence to talk about abstinence, marriage, and monogamy among many parents and educators who apparently feel that these are hopelessly old-fashioned and out-of-date ideas doomed to failure. But their silence deprives students of an extremely important discussion.
I'll never forget the graduate school health class I spoke to about the effectiveness of abstinence-centered programs after presenting the Free Teens slide presentation as one example. The professor, an intelligent, likable person, who had been married for over thirty years and who was also a grandmother, stated that she agreed with the message personally, but couldn't see herself talking about preserving sex until marriage and about monogamy, because "Kids would never accept it coming from someone like me."
I thought to myself: "How tragic. Here's a woman with decades of experience, a successful marriage, and grandchildren she surely loves, but she's convinced herself that she (her own life and experiences) is irrelevant. And so she is." As Shakespeare, I believe, said, "Thinking makes it so."
This self-censorship is tragic and mistaken. I have found that many students respond to the pro-abstinence, pro-marriage message when it's spoken with honesty. Many students have told me after a presentation that I'm the first speaker invited to their school to really talk about abstinence as something important, not just to give it lip service.
Part of the problem also is ignorance on the part of adults who have internalized, albeit unconsciously, views on love, sex, and marriage from the popular culture including TV, movies, and popular magazines. Many teens are confused because the adults in their lives are confused.
The importance of avoiding ambiguous "mixed messages" can be seen in a Lou Harris poll done for Planned Parenthood several years ago. The rates of teen sex were doubled for those teens whose parents spoke to them about contraceptives compared to teens whose parents spoke to them about sex, but not birth control. The message a parent intends may not be the same message the teenage mind hears. Many teenagers whose parents talk about contraceptives or provide a condom apparently hear "I expect that you will have sex" Adult subtleties often get lost "in translation:"
Dr. Terrance Olsen and Chris Wallace, developers of the AANCHOR curriculum, have done important research regarding the relationship between parental strictness and teen sexual activity, finding that parental permissiveness does young people no favors. Those parents who give moderate to strict discipline were able to drastically reduce teen sexual involvement. fifty per cent of boys and forty-three per cent of girls who rated their parents as "not strict" had already had sexual intercourse. In contrast only twenty-three per cent of boys and twenty-one per cent of girls who rated their parents as "strict" had had sexual intercourse. However, if the parents were "very strict" the rate of teen sexual activity rose somewhat, to thirty-one per cent for boys and twenty-eight per cent for girls. 4
Olsen and Wallace found that even delaying the age of beginning dating can have enormous impact on whether sexual intercourse takes place. ninety per cent of girls who began dating at age twelve were found to have had intercourse as teenagers. fifty-five per cent of those who began dating at age thirteen reported having had intercourse. Delaying first dating until sixteen dropped the rate of sexual intercourse to under twenty percent. 5
One might be led to question the American institution of teen dating itself when one considers research showing that women who don't have sex before marriage have less risk of divorce and better marriages. Some parents are anxious about their children being popular with the opposite sex and even encourage active teen dating. Ironically, these parents may actually be contributing to future unhappiness and marital failure in their children's lives. The idea that one needs to rehearse for future love relationships is one that we may need to re-think.
Maybe this is an appropriate place to list some of the benefits of marriage and sexual monogamy. Married people: 1) experience much better physical and mental health and live longer than unmarried singles,6 2) have high rates of fidelity (80-85%),7 3) have lower rates of domestic violence than nonmarried households,8 4) suffer less poverty than singles with children,9 and 5) have more sex and are more sexually fulfilled than singles. 10
I think it's important to reflect on the last point. Why would sex be more fulfilling for married couples, particularly for women? The answer is trust. In marriage, the issues of commitment and who will be the father of any children born have already been decided. There isn't the worry and fear which exist in the war zones some call "free sex."
While sensitivity is obviously called for out of concern for children living with a single parent, doesn't censoring the issue of marriage reflect cowardice more than compassion? Aren't there ways to discuss these issues that are positive and nonjudgmental? Pretending that marital commitment is unimportant to the fulfillment and well-being of most men and women and especially of their children is the worst lie we could possibly foist on teenagers, perpetuating trends that are already seriously damaging our country.
Obviously, it will be necessary to challenge popular culture's negative, sometimes even hellish, image of marriage. It is often portrayed, incorrectly, as a den of domestic violence and abuse, an excuse for the enslavement of most wives, and as having self-righteous, "out-of-touch" religious zealots as its only public proponents. Articles have begun to appear with a more balanced view, one that does not portray marriage as a saccharine sweet, catch-all heaven, but as a realistic, positive choice that takes work.
This positive trend can be seen even within the world of professional educators. An important article, "The Neglected Heart: The Emotional Dangers of Premature Sexual Involvement" by Thomas Lickona, Professor of Education at the State University of New York at Cortland appeared in the Summer 1994 American Educator. The article concludes with the kind of statement that more educators will hopefully have the courage to make:
Sex is most joyful-most emotionally safe as well as physically safe-when it occurs within a loving, total, and binding commitment. Historically, we have called that marriage. Sexual union is then part of something bigger-the union of two persons' lives."
These issues and a comparison of the assumptions and effectiveness of different approaches to AIDS and sex education are discussed and documented in Sex and Love: Teaching Our Children in the Age of AIDS, the publication mentioned before. Another Center for Educational Media resource is the popular Free Teens HIV/AIDS, STDs and Pregnancy Prevention program used in 38 states and more than two dozen countries.
A new resource for elementary school children and their parents released in September 1996 is a full color children's book entitled, The Wonderful World of True Love, in which a little girl named jenny asks her mom and dad the question "Where do babies come from?" These and other resources can be ordered from the Center for Educational Media. 12
1. Donald Orr et al., Premature Sexual Activity as an Indicator of Psrchosocial Risk, Pediatrics, vol. 87, no. 2, February 1991, p. 141-147.
3. John O.G. Billy et al., The Effects of Sexual Activity on Adolescent Social and Psycliosocial Development, Final Report to the Office of Population Affairs, DHHS, June 1986.
4. Terrance Olsen et al., A Sampler of AANCHOR, Arbinger Foundation, Provo, Utah.
6. Beth A. Hahn, "Marital Status and Women's Health: The Effect of Economic Marital Acquisitions," Journal of Marriage and the Family 55, May 1993, 495-504.
7. Associated Press, "Rampant Fidelity, Survey: Few spouses are cheating," October 19, 1993.
Robert T. Michael et. al., Sex in America: A Definitive Survey, New York: Little, Brown, and Co., 1994.
8. Jan E. Stets, "Cohabiting and Marital Aggression: The Role of Isolation," Journal of Marriage and the Family 53, August 1991, 669-680.
9. Deborah Dawson, "Family Structure and Children's Health and Well-Being: Data from the 1988 National Interview Survey on Child Health." Journal of A'Iarriage and the Family 53, August 1991, 669-680.
10. Michaels, op cit.
11. Thomas Lickona, "The Neglected Heart: The Emotional Dangers of Premature Sexual Involvement," American Educator, Summer 1994.
12. Center for Educational Media; P.O. Box 97; Westwood, NJ 07675. Phone (800) 221-6116.
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