Sex Ed: Adolescence
We provide here about half of the material from Chapter 15 of from How and When to Tell Your Kids about Sex: A Lifelong Approach to Shaping Your Child’s Sexual Character by Stan and Brenna Jones. Copyright © 1993, 2007 by Stan and Brenna Jones. Used by permission of NavPress, Colorado Springs, CO. www.navpress.com:
We begin with a word of encouragement. We are now on the other side of adolescence with our three kids, and we enjoy close and loving relationships with all three as young adults. We enjoyed their adolescences immensely. One of our three children, however, went through a terribly difficult time for about two years; we knew it was hard at the time, but only afterward did we understand just how bad that period was. We witnessed God’s faithfulness in the lives of all three of our children, and would not change anything that we went through; none of the many times of joy and closeness, nor any of the occasional times of pain and difficulty. God is good!
We want to focus here on the most important task of parenting the adolescent: maintaining a loving relationship and giving them the support they need as they go through this most challenging period.
PROVIDING LOVING SUPPORT
During the adolescent years, parents are not as likely to feel that they are having fruitful times of teaching their teenager. You are more likely to be met with cool indifference or bored impatience. If you have built the proper foundation, your major role now is to give strength to your child by being available, and being a listening ear, an askable resource, an affirming voice, a source of affection, and a fair, firm, but compassionate limit-setter. The time has come for the teen to choose to live by the lessons you have taught. You help the teen make and live by those choices by providing the kind of supports we discussed as an element of character in Chapter 3.
Affection is the cornerstone of your relationship with the teenager. Expressing affection with teenagers can be a challenge, though. They are often disgusted by the idea of public displays of affection—forget a goodbye kiss at the curb in front of school! Even so, don’t be discouraged, and continue to give them the love that you know they need. Never stop being physically affectionate with your teens. Even when they are standoffish and difficult, a pat on the back, a shoulder rub, a quick hug, or a kiss on the cheek can all be vitally important.
As parents, we need constantly to remind ourselves of what our kids really need—relatedness and significance, acceptance and purpose. Continue to remind them how those needs can be met genuinely, rather than in a counterfeit fashion through sex. You as the parent can no longer fill up their needs—they are now beginning to move more definitively out beyond the family to have many of their needs met. But you can guide them as they try to get those needs met, and you can take the edge off of their needs enough to allow them to make good choices. As a full grocery shopper makes better decisions in the store than a famished one, so, too, your children will make better decisions if their needs are partially met by you than if they’re famished. Your affection and acceptance, your encouragement about the significance of their life in God’s eyes and yours, can send them into the world strong rather than weakened. If their need for love and affection, and for meaning and significance, are insufficiently met, those needs will be more likely to overwhelm their moral commitments.
Praise and Encouragement
You can help meet your kids’ needs for significance by being as lavish with praise and encouragement as possible. What can you find in their schoolwork to praise them for? Forget their grades if you must! Sit down with them and read the essays they wrote for a test or the paper they composed and find things to praise about their insights and knowledge. Affirm the skills they are developing, whether they are in calculus class or auto mechanics. Praise their diligence in their part-time jobs. Praise any initiative or self-discipline they show. Affirm any signs of sensitivity to friends. As you do this, you will have to endure their teenage mood swings. You just have to tolerate and love them through those moods, continuing to find ways to praise them.
Don’t give up on teaching your children, but now we must think much more about teaching through our personal example rather than lecturing. Whereas teenagers may be unwilling to listen to you sermonize, they may be open to you as you share from personal experience. By sharing about your own triumphs and struggles in adolescence and young adulthood, you not only continue to instruct them about your views, but you also show them that you have struggled with similar issues, too. You know what it is like to have the feelings they are experiencing, even if they find this hard to believe. By sharing your stories, you may give them better skills in expressing their own struggles. Your talking gives them words to describe some of what they are going through. Can you tell them about times when you were lonely, pressured, despairing, angry, tempted, content, in love, confused, or hurt? Showing that you have experienced some of what they are going through can build the bond between you.
In Chapter 11 we discussed how teens’ personal faith has a powerful influence on their sexual choices. We urge you again to do everything possible to encourage their religious faith. Pray for them diligently (as if you aren’t already!). Continue to share about your own faith and walk with God in the home. Be willing to sacrifice time, energy, and money to boost their faith. Be a youth-group sponsor, offer your home as a meeting place for the group, sacrifice to support your children’s desire to go to a church camp or youth rally. Be as creative as you can in supporting their continuing development as Christians. By supporting their involvement in church, you are also helping them to form their peer group in a way likely to encourage their sexual purity.
Reasonable, Firm Limits
Finally, support your adolescent by providing reasonable but firm limits. Family rules such as curfews, regular chores and family responsibilities, and restrictions on the kinds of activities he or she can be involved in are vital for the teenager. These supportive structures can give the teen a sense of safety. What makes our job as parents so difficult on this point is that our kids rarely praise us for providing such structures. Instead they fight against and complain about the limits. But it is one of the fundamental rules of parenting adolescents that such limits are good for them even if they don’t know it! One recent study found that not only did a close parental relationship decrease the chance that kids were sexually active, but so did the kid’s awareness that his or her parents would not approve of them having sex. Discuss with other parents what limits are reasonable. Limits also can provide “a way out” for our kid. Brenna found that one comforting thing her parents did during her adolescence was to tell her that if she was ever in a situation where she was unsure or uncomfortable, that she would be wise to get out of that situation, using her parents’ “unreasonable rules” as her alibi. She used this excuse on more than one occasion.
CONTINUING YOUR TEACHING
Of course you can do more in adolescence than just provide support. One of our principles with our kids was repetition. Continue to rehearse well-worn lessons. In our family, it became a joke—a meaningful joke—for us to say “Remember, God made sex, and it’s a good thing so use it right!” Often, our kids said it to us, teasing us, but even the teasing was a rehearsal of a basic lesson from the past.
Continue the work of instilling them with godly beliefs and values. Continue to inoculate them against the destructive messages they will be soaking in from the media and popular culture. What else can you work on?
What Can Parents Do to Improve Adolescents’ Decision Making?
Many school-based sex education programs are not succeeding. The most likely reason is that these programs are all premised on the assumption that teenagers are more mature decision-makers than they really are. This assumption seems wrong in two important ways. It attributes a greater rationality and maturity to teens than many are developmentally capable of. And it ignores the fact that human beings are not morally-neutral calculating machines, but rather are sinners with a bent for doing what is wrong.
Point toward long-term consequences. You can do some things to help your kids make better moral decisions. First, remember that their thinking tends to be influenced most by concrete, visible examples. So, the teenage friends who engage in sex without using birth control and who don’t become pregnant are much more powerful influences than a hypothetical discussion in class about “the percentages of girls that become pregnant within a year of initiating sexual activity.” Parents and churches have to try to “even the score” for concrete examples. Strive to make long-term, intangible consequences more obvious and powerful by showing those consequences in a way that is hard for kids to ignore. One way to do this is to make sure they see examples of the difficulties and devastations of pregnancy and disease. Discuss such examples in your community, not for gossip but for instruction. See if you know people willing to share testimonies of the challenges they have faced or mistakes made.
Put a personal spin on consequences. A second way to encourage greater teenage rationality is to walk your adolescent through the consequences of sexual activity and pregnancy. Ask how friends would respond if he or she got a sexual disease. Follow this by these sorts of questions: “What would you look for to know that you had the disease? How would you make a doctor’s appointment? How would you pay for the doctor’s appointment? How would you eventually handle telling the person you were going to marry that you had had a sexual disease? How would you handle the possibility of never being able to have children from having the sexually transmitted disease?”
You can ask kids some of the same questions about pregnancy. Say, “I want to help you think through what teen pregnancy would be like, so that you can understand the consequences for yourself and anyone else you know who happens to get pregnant.” Then follow with questions of how your child thinks his or her life might change with pregnancy pregnant. Flesh out their responses, asking, “How would having a baby affect your going out with your friends? How would it affect your finishing school? How much do you think it costs to raise a baby? What kind of job would you need to get to adequately care for your baby? If you had to work to support your baby, how would you be able to spend enough time with it to give it the love and care that it needs? How old do you think the baby would be when you will have graduated from college?” These and other questions like them can be a way of making the hypothetical quite concrete.
Emphasize God’s rules. Finally, continue to emphasize the enduring value of God’s rules for our lives. Christians believe in a God who is perfect, loving, and just; a God who has chosen to reveal to us how we are meant to live. His laws are based on the true love and perfect justice that only He can perfectly embody. But we cannot throw out His laws and live by the abstract principles of love and justice; to do so is to trust too much in our own abilities and to set ourselves up as little gods. His laws can never be replaced by abstract principles.
Blessed are they who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart.
They do nothing wrong; they walk in his ways.
You have laid down precepts that are to be fully obeyed. (Psalm 119:2–4)
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. (Psalm 19:7)