Chapter OneTeaching Your Kids Value-Centered Sexuality
"How many of you received healthy, value-centered sex education from your parents growing up?" It's a question I ask parents everywhere. And the response is always the same. In a gathering of, say, four hundred people, usually four will raise their hands. It doesn't matter where I am-speaking in a church or another place-the ratio is consistent.
It's true: Our parents didn't talk to us about healthy sexuality, and, unfortunately, we're not doing much better with own children. A vast majority of young people say they receive more information about sexuality from their friends, media, and school than from their own home. This is not good news, especially when all studies show that the more positive, value-centered sex education kids receive in their home, the less promiscuous they will be.
A parent is almost always the person who has the best interest of their child in mind when it comes to sexuality. And you and I have the opportunity to provide our children healthy, value-centered sex education that is based on what God values. He has given us our sexuality. In the framework of Scripture, sex is not dirty. In the context of marriage it is rather beautiful. The world's culture has cheapened sex, but God's view of sexuality is wonderful and magnificent.
Frankly, it's not the primary job of schools to teach morals and values, and it definitely shouldn't be left to the latest rock star or media magnate. And friends? I now laugh out loud at what my friends told me in the fifth grade about the birds and the bees. Talk about wrong and misguided information.
Even though this generation of parents typically wants to do a better job of communication, too many well-meaning moms and dads are remaining silent for too long. Most didn't have a healthy conversation about sexuality modeled for them. They are afraid that talking about "it" will rob their children of their sexual innocence, or their children's sexual desires might be awakened early. Some parents avoid bringing up the subject because they might be asked about their experiences, and they aren't all that proud of how they handled their own sexuality. Regardless, the best person to teach your children about sexuality and relationships is you!
The Goal: A Lifetime of Sexual Integrity
For many parents, the foremost goal is to do everything possible to make sure their child stays pure until his or her wedding day. This is wonderful, but I believe we can and should do much more for our children. We can help establish in them lasting sexual integrity that starts at a young age and extends throughout their entire life, guiding their self-image, how they treat members of the opposite sex, and how they view and enjoy intimacy in marriage, as well as how resolute they are to remain faithful in mind and body. I compare it to teaching our children healthy eating habits. We certainly want them to eat their broccoli, whole grain breads, and other good things while living at home, but more than anything, we want them to continue reaping and enjoying the benefits of eating healthy after they have moved out.
This kind of a core belief in sexual integrity doesn't come from a one-time conversation or a sex education class. It develops as parents instruct, dialogue, and model a life of value-centered sexuality. When I talk with young people who have grown up with sexual integrity, they almost always mention having ongoing conversations with their parents that at least most of the time felt very natural. No matter what the age, kids learn best when they talk and dialogue, not just when parents lecture.
Scott and Anne came to me for premarital counseling. They had both previously been in my youth group. During one session we talked about sexuality. I was pleased to hear they were both virgins; this is usually not the case today, even among Christians. I asked how they had chosen sexual integrity when most of their generation had not. Their answer was insightful. First, they said their parents had talked openly and freely about sex-related issues. Secondly, while in the high school youth group, they had taken a sexual purity pledge very seriously. Thirdly, although they did have a strong sex drive and it had not been easy to wait, they both had made a decision to practice the spiritual discipline of sexual abstinence. Personally, I have found that when young people like Scott and Anne commit to only the physical discipline of sexual abstinence, they do not do as well as those who honor and love God with their eyes, mind, and heart, as well as their body. This all-out commitment to sexual purity is living according to what I call the Purity Code (explained in more detail in chapter 2).
Scott and Anne's wedding was a joyous occasion, and I made it a point to thank both sets of parents for the incredible start they had given the young couple. The parents laughed and said it wasn't always easy. In fact, they said some conversations were downright uncomfortable. But the results were well worth the discomfort. And Scott and Anne were on their way to discovering what authorities have known for years: Sex is better in marriage. Sex is better when couples have a spiritual connection, and sex is not better if you live together before marriage.
You may be wondering, what does this story have to do with me and my family? My kids are still young. Actually, the very best time to introduce healthy sexuality is when children are young. Then you can naturally teach healthy values at the proper developmental stage of life.
What Our Kids Are Facing
To do the very best job we can as parents, we need to become students of the culture in which our kids are growing up. These days, that culture is "aging" kids as never before. We may have been teenagers once, but we were never "their age" because they experience so much so young. What today's ten-year-olds face is vastly different from what we dealt with at age ten.
I realize that parents of younger children may feel like skipping some of the culture-related information here that tends to look at the teenage years, but don't do it. Your time is right around the corner.
Here are the facts, and they aren't pretty. Without setting a solid foundation of healthy sexuality and without a goal of sexual integrity, your kids can wind up on the wrong side of these statistics.
Nearly 60 percent of sixteen- to eighteen-year-olds have had sexual intercourse. Nearly one-third of thirteen- to fifteen-year-olds have had sexual intercourse. Nearly 60 percent of sexually active teenagers do not use any method of birth control, and the same number of kids has never once talked with their parents about birth control. Ninety percent of kids surveyed believe in marriage, yet 74 percent say they would live with someone before or instead of marriage. Thirty-one percent of teen girl virgins say they have felt pressured by a guy to go further. Sixty-seven percent of teens who have had intercourse wish they had waited. Over half of the young people in America claim to have had oral sex by the age of twenty-two. The average age of the first Internet exposure to pornography is eleven years old. Three million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) occur each year among teenagers. In the summer of 2000, Twist magazine did an online survey of ten thousand girls, over half of whom were under fourteen. Amazingly, 24 percent of the girls who said they were virgins responded that they engaged in oral sex. There are fourteen thousand acts of intercourse or sexual innuendo each year on primetime TV.
These statistics are especially alarming when you consider that behind the numbers are names and faces and families and stories. No, not every story can be changed by teaching healthy sexuality, but many can change. Kids today aren't just looking for the "birds and bees" talk. They want answers, and I think the best place to get those answers is from their parents.
For a look at what kids are facing, I thought you'd be interested in knowing some of the questions I get from young Christians.
How far is too far? Is it possible to get the Pill without my parents' knowledge? I stumbled upon some pornography on the Internet. Now I can't help myself and I go to sites every day. It is affecting my spiritual life and the way I view girls. I think I'm addicted. What can I do to get help? How often do married people usually have sexual intercourse? Is oral sex okay? If you participate in oral sex, are you still a virgin?
All of my middle-school girl friends (except me) believe it is okay to have "friends with benefits." They don't want to have sexual intercourse, but hooking up is no big deal. What is your opinion? Is masturbation wrong? What do you think about girls getting back massages from their boyfriends? Sometimes I think my boyfriend would like to go farther than just the back. At what age is a boy's first erection? Is it true that you can get STDs without having sexual intercourse? I'm afraid of AIDS. What can I do to not get it? Will God condemn me if I have premarital sex? Will He forgive me? Do you think it is okay for me and my friends to have boy/girl sleepovers as long as there are chaperones? What can a guy do if he has a problem of lust toward other guys? How can I handle it without having to be gay? Does God forgive Christians who have had abortions? I have been sexually abused for five years and haven't told anyone about it. How can I try to forget and deal with it?
The questions are sobering, aren't they? I realize that you may not be feeling very optimistic right now about your child's future, but the fact remains that there is hope and there are answers. Kids today receive a variety of mixed messages when it comes to sexuality, and it's our job to help sort out the messages and their questions.
Young people have a great deal of tension about their sexuality and are filled with questions partly because of the conflicting information they receive from different sources. To simplify, let's look at three areas where kids receive mixed messages.
1. Parents say, "Don't do it ..." (and then nothing else is discussed-silence). 2. The church says, "Don't do it because it is dirty, rotten, and sinful, so save it until you're married!" 3. Secular culture says, "This is how you do it-and make sure you use a condom."
We have already covered the fact that parents seldom take the lead when it comes to presenting healthy sex education with their children. Kids tell me that all they hear from their parents is, "Don't do it," with little or no explanation. Most parents do not take the time to deal with questions like the ones presented earlier. Although I think the church in recent years has done a much better job about communicating a healthy form of sexuality, kids still think they hear from the church that sex is a dirty, sinful thing ... and that they should wait to experience that dirty, sinful thing when they are married! Maybe that's why many married couples still struggle with enjoying their God-given sexuality. As I mentioned, though, today the church has wonderful resources and is much more open to providing good information. Unfortunately, secular culture is thrilled to give its opinion of sexuality. Movies, TV shows, music, the Web, and many celebrities express attitudes and views that are almost the opposite of the values we want to pass on. We can't expect the secular culture to present morals and healthy values to our kids. It is our job. Silence or complaining doesn't help our kids.
Most authorities believe that this generation of young people is living through a sexual crisis. What is important to understand is that the crisis is perceived differently in society. The secular world presents sexual promiscuity as a crisis based on the results of promiscuity: unwed mothers, stretched finances, sexually transmitted diseases, abortions, and so on. The secular community readily admits there is a problem. But again, the focus is on consequences.
The Christian perspective is much more concerned for the whole person. Our focus is on the development of healthy values, being responsible for one's actions, one's relationship with God, and generally what is right and wrong. The Christian perspective deals with, to a greater extent, how we treat members of the opposite sex and our deeper moral character.
In a recent debate I had with a leader in the Planned Parenthood movement, we were able to agree on many issues. We agreed that a majority of kids are experimenting with sexual behavior. We both had a deep concern for unwed mothers and their children. We had a mutual concern about the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases and sexual abuse. We even agreed that parents can provide the best and most effective sex education. What we couldn't agree on was that the core problem lies not just in the results of promiscuity but what feeds into it: declining morals and values, as well as young people trying to avoid responsibility for their sexual behavior.
Another troubling aspect of the crisis is that sex fools kids into "instant intimacy." When young people become physically intimate with each other and then break up, it leaves scars. Over the past decade I have seen this trend in my own ministry with students. A young woman or man would talk to me about a breakup almost like a divorce. The more I saw a negative change in the emotional health of students who had just broken up, the more I heard they had been sexually involved. The story goes like this: "We really loved each other. We didn't mean to get so physically involved, but we slipped. The more time we spent on a sexual level, the closer we got. Now we have broken up and I feel devastated. I'm not sure I can go on." Some experts say that as many as 70 percent of teenage suicide attempts stem from a broken romantic relationship.
All of this is to say that there is no such thing as casual sex. Sexual intimacy affects our emotional, relational, mental, and spiritual life, not to mention our physical well-being.
For parents of younger children, one major concern is what we call the early sexualization of children. Today we are finding that early exposure to sexually explicit experiences is causing a rapidly deteriorating sexual mindset with kids. If you have kept your child from watching movies and TV programs with sexual content, good for you. We shouldn't be trying to raise "happy" children who get their way. We are trying to raise responsible children who will make wise decisions about their morality. Liberal doses of listening to and viewing sexual content is not healthy.
One of the many jobs of a parent is monitoring the media our kids see and use, as well as their friendships. We need to become students of their culture. We need to listen to what they listen to, watch what they watch, and read what they read. I know this may sound contradictory when I previously applauded parents for creating media-safe homes, but let me explain. As kids get older and are exposed to media, it is very important for parents to take the lead in helping their children learn to discern what is healthy and what is not healthy content. Early sexualization is simply not healthy; in today's culture, a parent must become very familiar with youth culture influences, and dialogue is necessary between parents and their children. Kids learn best when they dialogue-not when Mom or Dad lecture.
A very fine Christian school in our area puts on a prom night for middle-schoolers. The parents buy expensive prom-type outfits. Many of the kids eat at wonderful restaurants and arrive in limousines. It is well-chaperoned, and the program is good, clean fun. My problem with the experience is that it gives kids in middle school an amazing date experience that moves them along too fast with the opposite sex. Don't get me wrong-I like the idea of giving our children "markers" when it comes to dating and growing up. I personally think it is better when young people can look forward to a marker in life, like a special prom event later in high school, or driving, or voting. Do not allow the dating marker to creep too early into your child's development. In today's culture, this may be just one of the battles you will have to win. And I do believe that positive peer events help kids learn how to relate in a healthy manner with the opposite sex. That's one of the many reasons why I am a huge proponent of youth and children's ministries in churches. However, to allow kids to experience boy/girl relationships on a deeper level at too young an age can bring on early sexualization and its related problems (which are covered in greater detail in chapter 5).