April 28, 2010

Parents, Quit Eyerolling, Teach Your Kids About Sex

When it comes to memories you can’t pound out of your head with a mallet, few rival the staying power of that moment when we discover how babies are made.

For me, it was really a series of excruciating epiphanies in the span of a fifth-grade afternoon in 1967.

All of us girls marched down to the school basement carrying chunky social studies books we would use to hide our very own copies of the slender Johnson & Johnson booklet titled “Growing Up and Liking It.” We watched a short flick on the wonders of our impending womanhood focusing entirely on feminine hygiene products made by—and how’s this for coincidence?—Johnson & Johnson.

Oh, how eagerly I whipped out that booklet to show my mother. She was a nurse’s aide, and she just loved matter-of-fact discussions about bodily functions. She set the booklet on her lap, looked me in the eyes and said, “There’s something else you should know.”

I don’t recall the specifics of the talk that unraveled life as I knew it, except that Mom had to add, “One day you will like it.” I do remember the heat burning up my neck and setting my cheeks on fire. I also remember my eyes bugging out like marbles on a spring as I shrieked, “With Dad?” And I remember my father coming home from work and asking, “What’s wrong with Connie?” Mom whispered, and he chuckled, and that was the only time I got away with not speaking to my father at the dinner table.

Ann Hanson, a grandmother of seven who travels the country teaching sex education in faith and secular communities alike, calls stories like mine “cradle tapes,” which are the experiences from our youth that form our adult values. When it comes to making sense of the mischievous stirrings that bring our childhood to an end, parents play a starring role, she said—even if they never take the stage.

“The difference between their faith-based programs is that Snyder’s instructions stop at ‘no,’ whereas Hanson wants kids to know how to protect themselves if they have sex. And she doesn’t want them to feel unworthy in the eyes of God when they do.”

“Parents are primary sexual educators,” said Hanson, who is minister for sexuality education and justice for the United Church of Christ. “It’s communication that stays with you for a lifetime.”

If parents say nothing, or act horrified by questions, the message is clear: It’s not OK to talk about sex in our home.

Hanson’s question: “If you aren’t educating your child, who is? Experimentation is a dangerous way to learn.”

On this, Hanson has a lot in common with Ben Snyder. He’s a 30-year-old father of two and the student ministries director for CedarCreek Church’s three campuses in the Toledo, Ohio, area.

I first discovered Snyder in a Toledo Blade story about his church’s campaign titled “My God Made Sex,” which used billboards, commercials, and a flashy website to promote two seminars for teens about sex and God. The message is a relentless drumbeat about how God will rain shame on you like volcanic ash if you don’t stay “pure” and wait until marriage to have sex.

It would be unfair to depict Snyder as a typical two-fisted warrior for intolerance. In our phone interview, he came across as a thoughtful and gentle man who wrestles with issues of human judgment even as he claims God’s certainty. After he declared homosexuality a “sexual immorality,” I asked him what he would say to gay and lesbian teenagers who feel bereft and abandoned by God because of his church’s teachings. His voice softened.

“If they feel certain they are homosexual, perhaps there is something else we’ve missed,” he said. “These things can be very divisive or misunderstood. For me, there are names and faces to this.”

Both Hanson and Snyder want parents to take the lead in sex education for their children. They also want young people to understand the spiritual ramifications of sex. The difference between their faith-based programs is that Snyder’s instructions stop at “no,” whereas Hanson wants kids to know how to protect themselves if they have sex. And she doesn’t want them to feel unworthy in the eyes of God when they do.

Education, she said, is a great deterrent. For pointers, she recommends parents visit AdvocatesForYouth.org.

“If you teach a child that sex is normal and healthy and even pleasurable, they are more likely to know when they are in a relationship that harms them,” she said. “And they are less likely to seek experimentation and sex at a young age.”

Remember, dear parents: When it comes to sex, you are your children’s primary teachers.

Even if you say nothing at all.

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