Sex education is happening at my house and at yours too. Are you in the game?
Ours actually started several years ago, but we ramped it up last week. Birds and bees would have been a welcomed launch pad this spring, but on a recent family road trip during spring break my two sons [almost 9 and 7 1/2 years old] and I ended up in a restroom stall in a gas station that had particularly well decorated walls that looked a lot like the cave writings I have seen on the Discovery Channel. This particular stop was a bit of an extended visit, which could not be rushed; so we had ample time to savor the information posted there. Regardless of how much I wanted to shelter my sons by blocking the information on those walls (often in poorly spelled words accompanied by inaccurate drawings), both of my sons have learned to read and the messages were there in almost 360 degrees for the harvesting.
I guess that restroom stall is an appropriate metaphor for living in the world we parent in. We cannot protect our children from the messages that are out there. Sooner or later, our little angels are going to hear something, see something or learn something that we strongly disagree with. As a parent (or even as any adult who accepts the responsibility of nurturing a child), I can only hope that these messages are appropriately and safely synthesized into a framework of understanding that I have greatly influenced prior to their reception. We encounter new vocabulary about weekly at our house.
I would love to think that I could prevent these occurrences, but I really can’t. Sometimes there is just not time for a pre-emptive scouting trip for every potty stop on this journey. Young digestive systems don’t always allow that time and the messages are everywhere (have you heard about this new thing called the internet? There are virtual restroom walls lurking inside your computer display right behind these words). I guess we could stay home, using only our bathroom and throw out the TV and computer and send our kids to a really, really safe school, but I choose not to live that way. (I will, however, be a little more careful about restroom selection for a while. There is no reason to rush this thing.)
The topic of where and how sex education should happen is volatile, reminiscent of those scenes from an action movie or a western where the bad guys are handling explosives. Whether the setting is a railroad trestle in the old west or a skyscraper in a metropolitan area today, the bad guys have to be careful about how they handle explosives. There’s always the moment where it really looks as if they are going to drop something and end it all. As a former professional in the business of nurture, I have been responsible for formative programs for young people in several different organizations in several settings. Having sponsored several educational events for young people in those locations, I’ve been invited to participate in larger discussions about what, when, where and how sex education should be taught. The discussions that were the most charged were about teaching in public schools. I can remember a couple of messages I received from folks who disagreed strongly with my thoughts. One particular letter I received even called my personal faith into question. We couldn’t even talk about talking about it. That got me started wondering what IT was that we really couldn’t talk about.
Here is what I have gleaned: The real issue is NOT about TEACHING SEXUALITY (plumbing, pregnancy and pitfalls). The real dilemna is WHOSE MORALITY AND VALUES we should attach to the information we teach about sexuality. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who would want to teach sexuality with absolutely no morality attached. That would d be like handing someone a weapon (potentially of mass destruction or at least massive self-destruction) without an owner’s manual. Likewise, most of us are not comfortable with our children learning sexuality with someone ELSE’s morality or values (that differ from ours). So as parents and caregivers we want OUR own morals and values taught. The irony is that no one can teach our morals and values better than we can, but some (many) of us are uncomfortable talking about our sexuality. So we’re left with the task of finding the best “substitute us”.
From a Judeo-Christian perspective, we have to face the fact that we’re out of the garden. Our forefather and foremother ate the fruit from that infamous tree. Wasn’t it the tree of knowledge of good and evil? Is this akin to the knowledge of morality and values? Might that part of our story be connected to this complicated issue? So like it or not, in addition to passing along the information, we’ve saddled ourselves with the freedom and the corresponding responsibility of passing along our own understanding or knowledge of good and evil, of morality and values, about where we personally detect the lines between right and wrong.
In my experience, the church has been a wonderful place for the teaching of sex education, partly because we tend to choose communities where our morals and values align, but the community alone is a poor substitution for our voice. We do participate in this process, whether we choose to jump in verbally or to remain tacit and let our example suffice, we are making a statement and leaving a legacy. Personally, I felt I had to respond verbally to those primitive glyphics on the stall wall and honestly it wasn’t entirely comfortable or clean (pun intended). It was another opportunity to leave my thumbprint on the world by influencing the influencers that live in my own home and hopefully to leave the world a little better, though it didn’t feel much like it at the time. I guess my loudest word for you and for me as parents is that we have to talk (or begin talking) about morals and values and sex in small and appropriate ways by answering questions as they are asked and by seizing teachable moments as opportunities surface. In my own experience, that’s just some of the best curriculum there is.
That’s my 2 cents, for what it’s worth. Some of these thoughts have been rolling around in my mind since I received that letter of judgement from a stranger over a couple of decades ago. I guess this post is partly my reply to that well-intentioned epistle. These thoughts have been simmering in my crock pot for long enough and I feel a little better now. Mostly this is on my front burner due to my recent visit to that particular worldly gas station. I was thrown back into the fire and I thought I’d take a moment today and write down my reflections for me and for you.
So I encourage you and me to be on the lookout! Let’s tune in and listen to our children’s words and to what’s hidden beneath the words and let’s respond carefully, lovingly and with intent.
As always, I welcome your thoughts.