No matter what sort of school your kids are in, it's primarily the parents' responsibility to shape and guide a child's attitude toward sex.
Yesterday, we discussed the drawbacks of abstinence-only education as it is commonly presented in secular schools, and an excellent discussion in the combox followed. In this post, I will try to compile some of the ideas in that discussion. Think of it as a sort of check list for concepts to cover in more depth.
Here are the basic ideas which should be included in sex education. There is so much here that one thing is clear: there is no such thing as The Talk, singular. There must be many, many talks! Also please note, I have not covered all of these things sufficiently with my own kids -- but I’m trying.
We are made to love and to be loved. This is what we are for. God designed us with a desire to show love for other people and to seek love for ourselves. This is not dirty; we are not dirty. Our desire for sex is a desire for love. God designed marriage as a safe and fruitful framework in which that love can play out. Outside of marriage, sexual expression is neither safe nor fruitful.
Love is a gift of self. Affection and desire go along with love, but love itself means caring for another person's well-being. If you love someone, you will not involve them in anything that will be bad for them (and you will not do anything to harm your own bodily or spiritual dignity, either). The way you show love to your boyfriend or girlfriend is not the same way as you show love to your spouse.
We speak with our bodies. This means it is also possible to tell lies with our bodies. Being sexually intimate with someone says that you have exchanged binding vows of fidelity with them. If you haven't made these vows, you must not act as if you have. You must learn to show love in other ways.
Sex is very, very much about babies, among other things. Learn and internalize the phrase "unitive and procreative." Teens should learn enough about a woman's cycle to make the clear connection that the reproductive system really is geared toward procreation (but not enough that they can actually use NFP to avoid pregnancies!).
The world lies to you. It's your job to have the courage to resist these lies. Kids are proud of not trusting Big Pharma or Big Agra -- so remind them not to trust Big Sex (but don't say it like that -- that sounded really dorky). Kids are responsible for turning away from the lies that books, music, movies, the internet, the abortion and contraception industries, and porn want to offer. Tell them what to do: be brave enough to say no, walk out, avert their eyes, or change the topic of conversation. Make sure they know that they are in charge, and that it takes guts to go against the stream. Discuss the chemical effects porn and masturbation have on the brain, and educate them on how it destroys the ability to enjoy normal sex.
Sex forms bonds, whether the people engaged in it acknowledge this or not -- emotional, psychological, spiritual, and scientifically proven chemical bonds. You do not want to form that bond before you're married, because it will hurt like Hell to break that bond once it's formed.
Even if every last person you know is having sex (and they're not), you don't have to do it. Being chaste doesn't make you a prude or a tease or a weirdo. It may make you different. There are worse things than being different. Catholics should stand out.
Abstinence is a negative; chastity is a positive. Have many discussions about how all people (single, married, religious, heterosexual and homosexual) are called to chastity, and everyone is called to abstinence at least occasionally, for various reasons. There are always boundaries in every state of life; and there are always rewards. Licentiousness, however, never leads to happiness, no matter what your state in life.
It's possible to ruin sex for yourself. This is, perhaps, what some teachers intended to teach with the "used up tape" exercise described in the previous post: if you keep forming a bond and then breaking it over and over again, eventually the "tape" is no longer "sticky." Someone who is in this state -- who sees sex as a casual, recreational activity with no profound meaning or mystery -- is someone who is broken, who is no longer functioning properly. Healing is possible, but this is not a normal state.
Sex is beautiful and mysterious. No, really. Have you instead found that whatever sexual experience you have had is weird and embarrassing and leaves you feeling crummy and bruised? This is because (a) sex without love is horrible; and (b) sex is a skill that needs to be learned like anything else. So if you've had sex and didn't like it, that doesn't mean that "sex is beautiful" is hogwash (and that abstinence is therefore pointless) -- it means that you've been singing the right words to the wrong tune.
Premarital sex hurts you both, even if you marry the person you had it with. If you never learn self control before marriage, it will be very difficult to learn it afterward. Moreover, sex that comes before commitment makes the entire relationship muddy and messy. One reader describes a good sex ed class: "One analogy included a pyramid of building blocks, with the top block in the relationship being sex. When built correctly, it works well and is great, but when you build the relationship on sex (demonstrator flips pyramid over, it falls apart) it doesn't work because there is no good strong foundation."
But all is not lost if you've gone too far. All is never lost as long as you're still alive Remind kids that they can go to confession (and make it easy for them to do so, without them having to explain why). Routine family confession is a great practice. Remind them frequently that they can talk to you or someone you both trust, and that you will never abandon them, even if they disappoint you -- and that neither will God abandon them. It's never too late. If they've fallen, they’re in good company. Don't despair. You can still be a true gift to your spouse. Your past doesn't define you -- but your current behavior will affect your future.
If you’ve been raped or abused, it’s not your fault. Jesus heals. You are still chaste, beautiful, and whole.
HOW TO TALK TO THEM
Fear has its place! Fear of single motherhood, fear of STDs, fear of disappointing parents, or of having an unpleasant experience -- these are all acceptable things to mention, as long as they are by no means the entire discussion you have about sex.
Be frank and honest, but not crude or confrontational. There's no use in using only lovely or abstract or antiquated terms -- kids will either disregard you or literally not know what you're talking about. You don't have to ruin their sense of modesty, but you do have to make yourself clear. You can just admit, "Look, I know it's uncomfortable to talk about this stuff, but it's really important." You don't have to make eye contact. To ease the tension, have these talks while you're doing some hands-on work like dishes or other chores.
The big picture isn't enough; practical advice is a must. Some kids may appreciate having actual lines to say if they find themselves in a bad situation, even one of their own making. They should understand that they always, always have the right to back out of a situation -- that there's nothing noble or fair about going all the way because they've gone a certain amount.
Remind them to look at the world and use their brains. One reader says, “Starting around the age of 13 or 14--I told my kids to watch what happened to their friends and people that they knew who were having sex. Did they think it was the best decision ever? Were those people truly happy? How did having sex too soon effect their friends?”
Don't be so gentle and encouraging and positive that you forget to talk about sin. One reader says, “t should be mentioned clearly and concisely exactly what kind of things are sinful (for informational purposes)but [fear of sin] shouldn't be counted upon as a primary motivating factor for young people today.” You can also tell them what words to use in the confessional, or at least give them a thorough and modern examination of conscience designed for teenagers.
Appeal to their sense of justice and compassion. Remind them that premarital sex not only injures the other party, it may create another human being who will, be definition, be at huge risk for all sorts of suffering and trials. Premarital sex is actually unjust behavior (assuming that the kids fully understand that abortion is an even worse injustice!).
This education has to begin at an early age, in an age-appropriate way. One reader sums it up this way: "5-year-olds need to understand what modesty is, and why our bodies need to be given an appropriate amount of respect. 7-year-olds need to be able to ask questions (and get answers) when they see "weird" magazine covers at the grocery store. 10-year-olds need to have some understanding of their biology. And so on. I don't think there is an age that is too early to plant the seeds of modesty, purity, and chastity because it involves so much more than [sexual intercourse]. It is ultimately ordered to charity and the basic understanding that all people are created in the image and likeness of God."
When possible, girls should learn about sex from their mothers, and boys should learn about it from their fathers.
The best lesson is the good example of the parents. One reader explains: “Children are learning about sex from a very early age, as they watch their parents interact …We can preach, sequester them, wear our faith like it's a costume, pray our rosary on our knees every day…[but] The best way to teach your kid about sex? LOVE your wife/husband with an undivided heart.”
A catechism recently written specifically for teenagers and young adults. It’s plain spoken, not watered down, with an engaging format; and it’s “keyed to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, so people can go deeper” (quote from the Amazon page).
by Brett Salkeld and Leah Perrault Drives home the point that couples in love shouldn‘t spend their time searching for that line between Things We Can Get Away With and Things We Can‘t Get Away With. It stresses that we communicate things with our bodies, and encourages couples to talk about their behavior, about whether their level of physical intimacy is appropriate for their actual relationship status. The book is possibly overly optimistic in assuming that young couples want to pursue their spiritual health, and can be rational in discerning their intentions; but full of good ideas and refreshingly frank and engaging. Suitable for older teenagers and young adults.
Theology of the Body for Teens and
Theology of the Body for Teens, Middle School Edition by Brian Butler and Jason and Crystalina Evert
NOTE: I have only reviewed the Middle School edition. It starts from the ground up, stating again and again that, body and soul, we are beautiful and precious, built to love and be loved. The format (book, workbook, DVD) might be a little unwieldy to use at home, but would be excellent for the classroom. Is appealingly goofy at moments -- doesn't try too hard to be hip, but doesn't talk down to kids, either. May be more geared toward more worldly kids, who are not used to thinking about their spiritual lives.
Please share your own recommendations in the comments! And don't worry. Pray for your chlidren daily, and trust that the Holy Spirit will not abandon your chlidren, even if you don't say all the right things.