Beyond ‘Birds and Bees’
When it comes to sexual issues, our teens are depending on us for more than just the standard “how-to / don’t-do” talk. Parents, churches, and youth leaders must go deeper — emotionally and spiritually. PART 3 IN A SPECIAL SERIES.
Earlier this year, in Parts 1 and 2 of this series, we looked at urban teenagers’ attitudes about sex, and their behaviors and practices that reflect those attitudes. Part 2 ended with a question about how parents and churches can fill the gap in teens’ knowledge about sexual health issues and thereby prompt a change in their behavior. We now tackle that tricky subject.
There’s good news and bad news about what inner-city teens seem to know about sex. The good news is that parents and church leaders rank very high on their list of people who can influence what they know and think about sexual issues. The bad news is that neither parents nor churches are doing a particularly good job of cashing in on their credibility currency. Here are some principles to consider as we all ponder how to help our teenagers recover lost ground and gain solid footing in areas of sexuality.
Principle 1: Changed Behavior is the Result of a Changed Mind. With so many programs, theories, and strategies jostling for ideological supremacy when it comes to reducing teen pregnancy and making a dent in teens’ sexual risk-taking, people of faith sometimes forget The Source of all wisdom — the Bible. Our source tells us that we experience transformation as a result of a renewed mind. Therefore, it stands to reason that we can expect youth to behave differently when they think differently about love, sex, marriage, intimacy, and relationships. Some would object, “We can’t just beat kids over the head with the Bible.” True in most cases, but that doesn’t mean parents, pastors, youth ministers, and others can’t or shouldn’t explain and demonstrate biblical principles in an authentic, consistent way, showing clear relevance between those principles and their everyday lives. The 2008 Faith-Based Urban Youth Workers Focus Group study (YWS) results support this reality. Youth workers surveyed indicated:
The only reason given for not doing it [having sex] is that the Word says it. The real reason is not talked about. No one explains that God has created you as a sexual being, etc. Sex is about what is in your heart.
So how would this work on the streets with the kids? It means rather than just saying “The Bible says don’t have sex unless you’re married,” maybe we should talk about the fact that they have been created as a unique person with gifts, talents, and abilities and that their sexuality is just one part — albeit an important one — of who they are. Giving teens a context for their urges and passions can help them see a bigger picture that encompasses more than their next hook up.
An important point to keep in mind here is that knowledge is not the same as a changed mind. Simply slogging through facts and figures about STDs and showing a 17-year-old boy how to use a condom does not translate into renewed thinking. When a teenage girl decides she doesn’t want to be alone with her boyfriend in his apartment any more, that’s a mind shift that results from her internalizing the principle that she should manage her relationship to avoid situations that will put undue pressure on her ability to resist a sexual advance. In the faith community, that’s known as not making provision for the flesh (see Romans 13:11-14). On the streets, that’s called handling your business.
Principle 2: Go After the Root, Not Just the Fruit.
“[P]rograms should address and enhance self-esteem. ‘If your self-esteem is non-existent, you’ll do lots of things because you don’t think you’re worth anything. Until you grasp your worth, you get pregnant to fill that gap.”
“In general,…funding for programs should be focused on helping young people with the range of challenges they face. …[C]urrent programs are ‘not getting to the core of the problem.'”
The YWS participants quoted above understand that trite messages don’t cut it with today’s technologically savvy, yet emotionally wounded urban teens. And thoughtful educators are joining parents and other faith-based leaders who know that the best sexual health education is whole-person education. It’s no longer sufficient to only stress teaching teens to focus on risk-reduction techniques. Clearly that has not worked. One of two Black teenage girls having an STD is living proof of that. Risk reduction is giving way to risk avoidance, reflecting a much-needed concern for young people’s emotional and spiritual selves in addition to their physical health. So parents and the church must switch from managing consequences to dealing with root issues. But this approach requires some housecleaning for adults as well.
Many parents themselves are more afraid of their daughter getting pregnant than they are of her devaluing herself and growing up insecure and emotionally damaged. Let’s face it — we’re much more likely to hear, “Don’t come home with no babies” than we are to hear, “Don’t come home heartbroken and with intimacy issues.” Of course, neither outcome is desirable, but why don’t we express as much concern for our teens’ emotional wellbeing as we do for pregnancy and disease?
The church suffers from the same mindset. We ask, “Why are so many girls in youth group getting pregnant?” rather than, “Why are so many of our teenagers driven by lust, and why are they lonely and depressed?” It shouldn’t necessarily be an either/or proposition, but it is a matter of emphasis. The reasons surely are complex, but we must work through them if we realistically hope to bring true transformation to our youth.
Whether we rise to this occasion or not, parents and the church are in fact in the best position to address root issues in a teen’s life. For one thing, a school environment, and to a lesser extent a non-faith-based community program, isn’t necessarily the best social space to discuss some of the conversation that would likely surface in discussions about root issues. It’s much less likely that a teenage girl in an inner-city school is going to open up about her family history that’s contributing to her sexual acting out.
Conversely, the natural rhythms of family life, and the spiritual focus of a church are natural places to discuss emotional responsibility, intimacy, the real-life realities of romantic love, and other related concepts. We just need to take advantage of this dynamic.
Principle 3: Know the Deal and Keep it Real. Uninformed adults trying to talk to teens about sex is a waste of time. The Medical Institute for Sexual Health (MI) suggests that parents educate themselves about the incidence of teen sex and what their kids are learning in their school sex education class. Other experts counsel that parents find out what their teens listen to and watch. There are certainly plenty of websites, books, brochures and other media to help answer these questions. But from personal experience, the best way to tune in to the mind and heart of a teenager is to simply listen and observe. Listen to how young people describe their friendships, the reasons they give for liking certain kinds of music and movies; and observe their emotional responses to the events in their lives. It’s not always easy to get kids to talk, but the more you sincerely listen the more they talk.
But what about those kids whose parents are bogged down working two jobs, or they don’t even know their parents, or they rarely know where their parents are? These are the tough cases, but this principle still applies. Here is where the church and faith-based community groups can help. Organizations and ministries with experience working with the hardest urban youth — groups like Fuller Youth Institute, Urban Youth Workers Institute, the Center for Parent & Youth Understanding, and others — echo the same refrain: young people want to be heard. But they want to interact with adults who know something about their day-to-day experience and who are available to them. But often churches suffer from the same adult absenteeism as do individual families. Another instance where adults need to do some soul-searching.
The old cultural dynamic of taking care of one another needs to be reinstated among us. Our current mentality of doing just enough to take care of our own is leaving too many of us uncared for. We’ve become strangers to sacrifice, and that’s what it’s going to take to reclaim our urban teens. Maybe our son doesn’t need to play four sports and see every first-run movie the moment it hits the screen. Perhaps we could cut down on two activities and use that time to help out with the youth group at our church.
In addition to knowing what’s going on in young people’s lives, parents and church members would do well to be more open to sharing their own personal stories as they relate to sexual decisions and choices. This seems especially difficult for us. Parents don’t want to lose face as they try to direct their teens, and some old-guard congregations believe that “airing dirty laundry” simply promotes unhealthy lifestyles. Even the government understands the fallacy of this thinking. Through its “Parents, Speak Up!” campaign, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services encourages parents to discuss with their children the importance of waiting to have sex:
Maybe you made different choices when you were young and don’t want to seem like a hypocrite. While [this reason is] understandable, you still owe it to your teen to put [it] aside. Healthy choices will better prepare your teen to deal with sex; and you need to help your teen make healthy choices.
We can use these discussions to show empathy for the pressure teens feel, and more importantly, to testify to the redeeming power of Christ. What better way to introduce them to the Christian faith?
Getting urban teens to hear and understand the truths regarding sexual lifestyles and behaviors is so critical, and we can’t afford to continue to lose this battle. It’s not about a culture war; it’s about young women and men who are looking for us to step up and make a difference in their lives.
WHAT DO YOU THINK? This article suggests a few principles that might help, but what has been your experience with this issue? Many UrbanFaith readers are parents, youth leaders, or former teens who have “been there” and have invaluable wisdom to offer. How can parents, churches, and youth ministries make inroads with urban youth on this critical issue?
Share some of your thoughts, experiences, and recommendations in the comments section below, and let us know if it would be okay to contact you for a follow-up interview. We’ll feature a roundup of some of the best stories, ideas, and strategies in a future UrbanFaith article.
• Talking to Your Pre-Teen or Teen About Waiting.
Advice for parents from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The 4Parents.gov site also features tips and information for talking to teens about general sexual development and risky behaviors.
• Urban Youth Workers Institute Focus Group Survey, October 2008.
The purpose of these focus groups was twofold: (1) to learn from youth workers about the ethnically diverse teens they serve and to explore teens’ attitudes and beliefs about sex, relationships, teen pregnancy, and parenting; and (2) to hear from youth workers themselves about unplanned pregnancy among their 20-something peers.
• Black Youth Project, June 2007.
This project examines the attitudes, resources, and culture of African American youth ages 15 to 25, exploring how these factors and others influence their decision-making, norms, and behavior in critical domains such as sex, health, and politics.
Also be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this series of special articles by Chandra White-Cummings.