Dear Dr. Wes & Kelly: With all the criticism of the pope’s comments about abstinence and HIV and the changes in our government, what do you think about abstinence education vs. teaching kids to using condoms or other birth control? My kids will be at that age soon, and I’m giving this a lot of thought.
Wes: It wasn’t enough for this column to get into an argument over sexuality with Phill Kline last year? Now you want us to take on the pope? I think I’ll pass.
It’s not because this isn’t an important issue. It is — especially when HIV prevention efforts are in a constant and desperate battle for the hearts and minds of the people. I’ll pass because the entire argument creates a false dichotomy in place of a rational view of how people are behaving and how they have behaved for all of recorded history. In other words, those who want to teach people to resist sexual expression should be smart enough to realize that real-life statistics are dramatically against them. Likewise, those who want to focus exclusively on making sex safer must realize that mechanical understandings of prevention without an ethical framework for decision-making lead to unsound reasoning and continued risky behavior.
While you might think this sounds a bit too philosophical, it really addresses the question you’re asking: How am I going to communicate my values to my children as they enter adolescence? You can sit down with your kids and say, “you must abstain from sexual contact until age X” or tell them that they can only have sex within a marriage and hope for the best. I know people for whom this has worked, and in some of those cases preserving sexual expression for a committed adult relationship has provided richness and meaning in their lives. Most, however, will not heed that advice. You can also sit down and teach your kids all the ways sex can harm them, from disease to pregnancy to emotional bankruptcy, and offer them strategies for how to cope with each. That also works for some. But until you can pull together all aspects of sexuality — the physical, spiritual, emotional and ethical values — and help your kids understand how they interrelate, you’re going to leave them vulnerable.
I also assume you’ve read this column over the years and know that we always recommend starting before the teen years to help build this philosophy. Kids don’t become ready to discuss sex at 13 or ready to date at 16 or ready to have a serious relationship at 18. They’re on journey of development, and you are their guide, so hopefully you’ve begun laying the foundation already.
I’m hoping over the next few years that those of us who believe in teaching a balanced perspective on sexuality can extend a hand of fellowship to both factions and move everyone toward the center. There we can consider the value of conscientious sexual expression along side the need to protect our children from the expectable indiscretions of youth. But you don’t have to wait that long. You have kids who need that lesson now. Enjoy your opportunity.
Kelly: Through the ups and downs of our chaotic teenage lives, there comes a point when we slowly but surely make the transition from a mere naïve child into a hormone-raging adolescent. And through this process, not only are kids adjusting to such a drastic transition, but their parents are as well. Although it may be embarrassing to even fathom talking to your children about sex, curiosity is going to get to them one way or another. During this time of sexual discovery, it’s important to help your kids through the process. Yet as a parent, you may find this difficult, being torn between whether teaching abstinence or providing your child with birth control and condoms will be more efficient.
While teaching your child about sex, it’s important to discuss the morals and values and what you expect from your children. If you prefer for them to be abstinent, then tell them. Realize that even through our melodramatic teenage lives, we do have a tendency to rebel toward authority. So I recommend not limiting them to only one option. As awkward as it may be for the both of you, I suggest you provide your children with condoms and birth control or a way to access them on their own. This does not necessarily mean you condone their sexual behavior and decisions, but it will allow them options, ensuring that they have the protection always available. At the same time, be sure to educate your children on the downfalls of engaging in sexual behavior. This should include but not be limited to early teen pregnancy, STDs and AIDS. Create awareness for your child and emphasis that there are consequences for his or her actions.
Yes, idealistically, abstaining from sex does sound perfect, but this perfect image could be easily shattered when you end up caring for your crying grandchild as your child struggles to finishes high school. You may have faith in your children that they will abstain until marriage. However, realize your child’s hormones are at an all-time peak. Is it worth the risk or is it better safe than sorry?
Next week: Stay in Lawrence and attend KU or not? What’s the best advice for high school seniors?
— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Kelly Kelin is a senior at Free State High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.