There's No Place Like Home for Sex Education: 12th Grade (page 3)
The Value of Values
There's all this talk about teaching "values" around sexuality: sharing family "values"; respecting that the "values" of others may be different; acting on one's personal "values."
Just what are these things called "values" anyway? Where do they come from? Do they change over time, and if so, does that mean they weren't really "values" in the first place?
Values are personal truths upon which we base our life decisions. We may not recall consciously choosing our values: they just seem to be there, influencing our attitudes and behaviors.
With such vagueness about values, we can have difficulty explaining them to children. Parents may have little experience defining or examining their values around sexuality, so attitudes and beliefs may be passed on without much active discussion.
It's important to revisit our core beliefs from time to time; to clarify, alter if necessary, and reaffirm what is true for us. This can be scary, since it forces us to examine what we say we value and what we truly value. It also makes us face how well our behaviors match our beliefs. This process of "e-value-ation" allows us to better guide our children in developing their own personal values about sexuality.
This process is healthy—and sometimes painful—as people examine long accepted codes. Families confront the possibility that the kids' values may not always line up with the folks. And it's incredibly enriching to discover there is common ground.
We teach children values around sexuality through words, but perhaps more importantly by modeling behaviors we see as right and just. Media and peers also promote values (or lack of) in the messages they deliver.
Moving toward independence, teens need opportunities to question, examine, and test values. Then they can freely and consciously form their personal value system. This allows them to truly "own" their values—to have the conviction to live by them.
It's a difficult balance for parents: striving to support sons and daughters in choosing their own values, while at the same time offering input and guidance. It requires trust that children are capable of choosing values that will work well for them in their lives. We can help our teens by communicating openly about issues such as love, relationships, premarital sex, birth control, sexual orientation, abortion, pregnancy, parenting, sexually transmitted infections, etc. Parents and teens need the freedom to express to one another what they know, feel, value and expect around each of these issues.
The following exercise can help in clarifying values around sexuality. Parents can do it alone or with their teens. For each statement, explain why you agree, feel neutral, or disagree:
- Premarital sex is wrong.
- Teens should have access to birth control without parental consent.
- Abortion should be legal.
- A career for married women is most acceptable after the children are older.
- If a 15-year-old becomes pregnant, she should place the baby for adoption.
- Gay and lesbian couples should have the freedom to adopt.
Your 12th grader's decisions around sexuality will be greatly affected by the ability to clarify, express, affirm and act on personal values. These are skills which improve with practice. If parents encourage such practice within the safety of the family, they better prepare their teen for life beyond high school.
What to Do?!
Teens may think the only choice to be made about sex is: "Should I or shouldn't I" The reality is, sexual decision making involves a lot more than merely deciding whether to have sex, and if so, when and with whom.
Life after high school brings increasing opportunities to decide about sex. If your family hasn't addressed this issue thoroughly, NOW IS THE TIME! Avoiding open discussion about sexual decisions only serves to leave young people unprepared.
For teens, it can be incredibly complicated … so many conflicting messages from "Just say 'no'" to "Go for it!" No wonder they're confused.
In fact, that's a good place to begin a conversation with your teen about this whole business of sexual decision making. Consider using the following exercise.
You and your teen complete and discuss these statements:
About sexual intercourse,
my parents tell me _______________ .
my friends tell me _______________ .
my religion tells me _______________ .
the media tells me _______________ .
I believe _______________ .
How do the messages differ? What conflict can this cause? How might the conflict be resolved? Who can assist? Repeat the process for several topics, including dating and relationships, pregnancy, birth control, abortion, living together outside of marriage, etc.
This isn't about who's right or wrong; it's about identifying and evaluating the range of sexual messages out there. Ultimately your teen must clarify what s/he truly believes. Only then can there be informed and thoughtful decision making.
This exercise requires safety to address such personal issues. To create that safety, establish some agreements, for example:
- Discussion is confidential.
- You can speak honestly, without fear of consequence.
- You have the right to speak without interruption.
- You may pass any time.
(NOTE: Establish only those agreements which you and your teen will honor and follow. If you have difficulty with agreements, consider asking for assistance from a third party, for example, a family friend, counselor, etc.)
Remind your teen that "Your body belongs to you. You decide how to express yourself, sexually and otherwise."
"Right now, you have the ability to say 'yes' or 'no' to sexual activity, regardless of pressure you may feel from your peers, your parents—whoever—to make the decision they want you to make. Ultimately it's up to you. Whatever you decide, choose thoughtfully."
"Consider how you make your decisions. If it's by impulse, have you truly thought things through? If your judgment is clouded (by drugs, alcohol, stress, etc.), how might this affect your decisions? If you let someone else decide for you, do you risk going against what you really believe and feel? If you don't make and clearly express a decision, might this encourage someone else to step in and decide for you? If you evaluate options and then decide, how might that increase your power to make choices that are consistent with your personal values?"
Important decisions in life deserve thought, evaluation, and careful consideration. Help your teen appreciate that personal power, freedom and self-respect come from taking charge of one's life choices.
Sexual decision making is a very big deal for teenagers today. What's sad is that most are totally unprepared for the challenge.
Your teen needn't be one of them.
Cleaning Up the Myths
When my son John asked to talk to me about a friend he was worried about—a friend with a problem—I got worried. As a kid, whenever I was in trouble and needed answers, I never admitted I was the one with the problem. It was always, "I've got this 'friend,' and he's got this problem …"
"He thinks he might be gay, Dad," John continued.
"Who?" I almost demanded. I wanted to shout, "John, who are we really talking about here?" But I contained myself. I value the openness John and I share … on lots of issues, including sexuality. I didn't want to jeopardize that now.
"I don't want to say, Dad. But I need to talk about it. All I ever hear about gay people are crude jokes and negative comments. Some people are pretty hateful. Maybe they just don't understand. I don't understand … and I'm not sure what to do for my friend."
The tradition of condemning homosexuality is firmly embedded in our culture. Unfortunately, AIDS added fuel to the fire of homophobia—fear and hostility toward people who are gay or lesbian. The result has been even less tolerance.
Struggling to gain comfort with their own sexual development, teens are especially threatened by the subject of homosexuality. Yet they're intensely curious … about what it means to be gay; what "causes" it, how to tell if someone is gay, etc.
I told John all I knew about the subject, which I confess wasn't much. He was surprised to hear that many children and adolescents have some kind of sexual experience with persons of the same gender—whether it be "playing doctor," sexual touching … or strong feelings of attraction and sexual fantasies. Such experiences and feelings are common, normal, and not necessarily proof that one is gay.
"There are a lot of theories, John, but no one knows what 'causes' someone to be either homosexual or heterosexual. Evidence shows that being gay isn't a choice … rather it's a compelling, deeply held orientation. We may not understand … and we don't have to. Their relationships can be just as loving, genuine and fulfilling to them as ours can be to us."
"We also know that sexual orientation isn't contagious. Having a gay teacher, coach, or even a parent doesn't 'turn' someone gay."
I told John that I believe hatred and discrimination against gay people are wrong. Differences don't justify mistreatment.
It turned out John really was asking about a friend. But what if he wasn't? I think of all those young people out there feeling confused, ashamed; alienated from their peers, alone with their secret; fearing rejection from their family and friends. And no one to talk to.
The existence of gay youth is often denied. Think about it … sex education, if it happens at all, is phrased almost exclusively in heterosexual terms. In avoiding open, honest discussion, we allow for continued misunderstanding, mistrust, fear, isolation. If we say nothing to our sons and daughters about this topic, that in itself speaks volumes.
So I encourage you, parents … John, his friend, and all those like him encourage you … to speak with your teens about sexual orientation. The following books may be useful:
On Being Gay: Thoughts on Family, Faith, and Love
St. Martin's Press, 1989
Click Here to Purchase This Book
Now That You Know: A Parents' Guide to Understanding Their Gay and Lesbian Children
Betty Fairchild & Nancy Hayward
Harvest Books, 3rd edition, 1998
Click Here to Purchase This Book
Even those committed to a healthy lifestyle often neglect their sexual health. For example, how many women are diligent about their annual Pap and pelvic exam—or practice monthly breast self exam? How many men perform (or even know about) testicular self-exam? Yet, testicular cancer is one of the most common cancers in males aged 15 to 34. Learning how to examine the testes properly can be a life saving skill.
Neglect of sexual health is an extension of discomfort about sexuality in general. Embarrassment around touching, examining or paying attention to our sexual anatomy contributes to poor health habits. These include reluctance to practice good reproductive health care (routine exams, treatment for sexually transmitted infections, appropriate use of protection).
As you promote positive behaviors around sexuality with your family, include support for sexual health.
By grade 12, young women should be prepared for their Pap smear and pelvic exam. (Parents: attending to this does not imply that you are encouraging sexual activity.) It's recommended that young women have an annual gynecological exam beginning with the onset of sexual intercourse, or by age 18.
Discussing both the value and specifics of this medical exam with your daughter can ease anxiety. It also helps establish a positive attitude toward sexual health.
Explain that the purpose of an annual exam is to see if the reproductive organs are healthy, and to detect any problems early on. The Pap smear is a simple test in which a sample of cells from the cervix (neck of the uterus) is examined for irregularities. Since Pap smears first became available as a screening tool in 1941, deaths due to cervical cancer have fallen 70%! Annual Paps are one of the most important ways a woman can care for her sexual health.
The first annual exam can have tremendous impact on attitudes toward and comfort with sexual health care. Parents help create a more positive experience by preparing their daughter. "Pelvic Exam: Your Key to Good Health" is an excellent Planned Parenthood pamphlet, designed to inform and support young women in safeguarding their reproductive health.
Help your daughter appreciate that she can take charge of these health issues. Encourage her to track her menstrual cycle, noting any problems or changes. Promote monthly breast self-exam (BSE). Breast cancer affects 1 in 9 women; with BSE, a young woman may detect a potentially dangerous breast lump early on.
Young men should be taught about the importance of testicular self-exam (TSE) for the early detection of testicular cancer. Studies show that most young men know little about TSE, yet have significant fears about contracting testicular cancer. Found early and treated promptly, there is an excellent chance for cure. But the mildness of early symptoms, ignorance, fear, and denial are factors which may cause adolescents to delay seeking medical attention.
Many of these same factors also keep adolescents (even adults) from seeking necessary medical attention for other sexual health issues such as unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, etc. It doesn't have to be that way. Educate and support your teen in all areas of sexuality—including sexual health.
A Letter of Love
You're growing into a handsome, bright, and sexy young man. Watching you fills us with love and pride—plus, we confess, a bit of worry. But then, do parents ever stop worrying about their children?
We know that you are as amazed (and probably confused) about your emerging sexuality as we sometimes are. It's difficult to accept you as a "sexy young man"—and frankly, hard to ignore. As you go through the process of understanding yourself as a sexual person, please think about the beliefs and values we have shared with you over the years. We hope you will consider them carefully.
Know that you can have strong sexual feelings, and choose not to act on them. Take the time you need to make wise choices that are right for you. You don't have to have sexual intercourse because "everybody's doing it," or because peers are pressuring you to "be a man." There's a lot to be said for waiting, you know. Your decisions about sex are yours and yours alone. Whatever you choose, choose responsibly.
We expect you to be thoughtful, respectful and honorable in your sexual decision making, Kevin. Love and sex are not one and the same … don't confuse them, or misrepresent them to another.
We expect that you will make sexual decisions which are positive and affirming—not ones which exploit either yourself or others. We recognize and respect that some of your beliefs may differ from ours. We trust that you have taken the time to carefully sort out what you value and hold to be true. We also trust that you will act on your values—for only then will you feel self-respect.
We hope that you will ask us for help if you find yourself confused, hurt or stuck over any issue you cannot resolve—whether it be related to sex, friends, school … whatever.
Remember we love you very much, Kevin, and are proud to be your parents.
Love, Mom and Dad
Kevin is a high school senior. What a landmark. So much growth and development under his belt—and so much more to go. His father and I recognize that this is his final year home with us—he's off to college next fall. As we prepare to launch this young man into the world, on his own, we remember all the talks we had—or didn't have or wished we'd had with Kevin about sex. We know the value and importance of such communication continue well beyond the high school years. Sexuality is such a complex issue, at any age.
The chapter on Kevin's high school years is closing. That doesn't guarantee that rational thought about sexuality, appropriate behavior and responsible choices are automatically cemented in place. On the contrary, in many ways, we know some of the greatest challenges lie ahead—on the college campus and beyond. We want Kevin to be prepared.
So we wrote this letter—to let Kevin know that, among other things, we want sex to be something we can always discuss in this family. It takes extra effort to talk with a 12th grader about sex. There are so many shades of gray, "what if's," and differing opinions. Emotions run high, discomfort sets in.
Sometimes it's easier to just forget it, cross your fingers, and hope you've already covered it all. But we didn't want to do that. We wanted to take one more opportunity to prepare our special young man for his journey of separation and independence.
So we wrote this letter.
Reprinted with the permission of Advocates for Youth.
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