Can We Talk About Abstinence and Contraception OR is it a Mixed Message? (page 2)
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of Advocates for Youth.
Parents care about their children and want them to grow up healthy and safe. They want their children to avoid an unplanned teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and HIV. Some want their children to avoid sexual intercourse or other sexual behaviors until they are old enough to make good, informed, and responsible decisions. Others want their children to wait until they are married.
Parents worry that, if they talk about both abstinence and contraception, then children will become confused, or will not hear the abstinence message. Others suggest that there is always a mixed message that results when both abstinence and contraceptive information are taught.
When parents hear that talking with their children may create a mixed message, it concerns them. We have learned from somewhere that "mixed" messages may be bad for the child. Actually, mixed or multiple conflicting messages are what most children are accustomed to hearing.
From a very young age, children hear more than one message about a topic. One parent or caregiver may emphasize that eating everything on one's plate is important because food should not be wasted. With another parent/caregiver, the child may be told he/she does not have to eat everything, if full.
A nine-year-old may explain that in her health class she learned that kissing someone is dangerous because you can get very sick. She then sees her parents kissing, and she receives kisses from relatives and friends. Children learn that different adults (and siblings) have differing views and behave in ways that may conflict with information they receive.
A common technique in parenting is to give children choices about behaviors, with consequences to consider. Most of today's childrearing books suggest that parents must help children to learn to make decisions beginning at a very young age. In order to select the best choice and make a decision, children need to understand options, alternatives, consequences, and different values.
A student of mine once said to me, "Hearing about both abstinence and contraception helped me make a more responsible sexual decision. Had I not had a class where both were presented, a thorough discussion between my partner and I would probably never have taken place. I knew after hearing all the considerations that we were not ready for the responsibility."
Children are exposed to many different views and values when they go to school, belong to various clubs and activities, and play with their friends. They recognize which values and views their own family supports, and which ones they do not.
This is all the beginning of critical thinking. Critical thinking is a life skill that all children and adults need to master in order to make decisions in the many challenges faced throughout life. There is no such thing as a "mixed message" if, as a child grows, she/he is taught to consider alternatives, to understand that there are different views/values, and to look at the consequences of various decisions.
In today's media dominated world, the visuals and dialogue continually conflict with what a child is taught and experiences at home. Millions of people in our culture watch media presentations all the time that create illusions that provide varying messages. Children and adolescents often see and hear different views which conflict with their family's values.
Families, schools, and communities provide different messages that a child needs to sort out. Adults have the responsibility of assisting children in this task. Parents have an advantage because they have had many years to demonstrate their values to their teen. They know their teen's attitudes and personality. They understand their teen's history and know the teen's goals for the future. They have had the teen's entire lifetime to impress upon the teen what messages are most important, and which are secondary. We don't give our children enough credit for being able to figure out the values we provide.
It is a very clear message when a parent, teacher, or other adult suggests to a child, "I feel very strongly that not having sexual intercourse while you are a teenager is your best option. It is also important for you to receive information about birth control or protection, so that someday, when you are ready to have intercourse, you will be better prepared to prevent an unplanned pregnancy or disease." This message contains both values-based behavior expected during the adolescent years and the information provided for when the young person might need it at some time in the future.
The belief that we should only send one message to our children implies that it would then be the only message that they would receive. If we are talking about sexual activity and arguing for abstinence only, then, in many ways, we are ignoring the other messages and desires that teens have and preventing them from processing their feelings about the other messages.
The advantage of talking with children about several options is that it helps them to think critically about the situation so that when they are in situations where there is temptation to act in ways that may be risky, they have the ability to consider alternatives and to examine what the outcomes can be.
Reprinted with the permission of Advocates for Youth.
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