Church, Preadolescents, and Sexuality Education: Moving from Recognition to Response

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“We recognize that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons. We believe persons may be fully human only when that gift is acknowledged and affirmed by themselves, the church, and society. We call all persons to the disciplined, responsible fulfillment of themselves, others, and society in the stewardship of this gift. We also recognize our limited understanding of this complex gift and encourage the medical, theological, and social science disciplines to combine in a determined effort to understand human sexuality more completely. We call the Church to take the leadership role in bringing together these disciplines to address this most complex issue. Further, within the context of our understanding of this gift of God, we recognize that God challenges us to find responsible, committed, and loving forms of expression.

“Although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are only clearly affirmed in the marriage bond. Sex may become exploitative within as well as outside marriage. We reject all sexual expressions that damage or destroy the humanity God has given us as birthright, and we affirm only that sexual expression that enhances that same humanity. . .

“We deplore all forms of the commercialization and exploitation of sex, with their consequent cheapening and degradation of human personality. We call for strict global enforcement of laws prohibiting the sexual exploitation or use of children by adults . . .

“We recognize the continuing need for full, positive, age-appropriate and factual sex education opportunities for children, young people, and adults. The Church offers a unique opportunity to give quality guidance and education in this area. . .”

From The United Methodist Book of Discipline, ¶161, The Nurturing Community, Section G, Human Sexuality (boldface added for emphasis).

“All children have the right to quality education, including full sex education appropriate to their stage of development that utilizes the best educational techniques and insights. Christian parents and guardians and the Church have the responsibility to ensure that children receive sex education consistent with Christian morality, including faithfulness in marriage and abstinence in singleness. . .”

From The United Methodist Book of Discipline, ¶162, The Social Community, Section C, Rights of Children (boldface added for emphasis).

Imagine: At some point in the middle of the night, the electricity went off unnoticed as you slept soundly through the storm. An alarm clock with battery backup has awakened you to prepare for a pre-dawn departure, which you must do without illumination. In a perfect world (or at least one better organized), your suitcase would be packed and ready to go, but the world isn’t perfect and the suitcase isn’t packed. Bad enough that you should have to attend to your morning hygiene routine in the dark, but then there is the matter of selecting your wardrobe for a three-day trip without being able to discern the available options.

Beyond the light (or beyond it’s absence), language becomes the issue. Your trip takes you to a land where you must find your way from Point A to Point B, with the disadvantage of being completely unfamiliar with both the country and the language. Between the two points, hunger sets in, and while you are able to find a place to dine, the menu contains neither recognizable words nor illustrations to suggest what is available.

When needed information is not available, when available information lacks reliability, when difficult or seemingly foreign information has no reliable interpreter, or when information is obscured or simply withheld, decision-making becomes daunting. In the months leading up to the most recent elections in the United States, both major political parties used misinformation and “spin” to manipulate the electorate. As a result, pivotal decisions about local and national leadership were made in an informational vacuum. Rather than being provided with substantive data upon which we might choose between the candidates themselves—or even between party platforms, we were expected to choose between impressions being projected of the candidates. Our emotions, rather than our minds, were being urged to the polls, prompting us to vote either for the candidates or party we had the best feelings about, or for the candidates or party about which we had the least bad feelings.

Consider how it feels when the truth you depend on for making decisions is withheld from you, unavailable, or distorted beyond all recognition, leaving you to decide based on emotions alone—many of which you have been manipulated into having. If you are able to access those feelings in conjunction with the fall election or in conjunction with your memories of early adolescence, you have a good sense of what many preteens experience regarding the emerging awareness of their sexuality and the retreating willingness of individuals and institutions to respond. What are these decisions?

· When information and impressions about sexuality come at me in all directions, who or what am I going to listen to or believe?

· When marketers suggest that I can feel the sexual things that adults feel or can get people to respond to me sexually as they would to an adult, do I say, “Oh no!” or “Let’s go!”

· When people try to convince me that they can provide me with what it takes to make me feel more complete or more loved or more adult or less alone, will I believe them?

· When I have questions about growing up and sex, do I turn to a parent, a teacher, a friend, a pastor, or to a book for answers I can trust?

· When I worry about my body being different from other bodies and think that I don’t fit in, what do I do that will help me feel connected?

· When sexual feelings follow me into church, do I pretend like they don’t exist, hate myself for these sinful feelings, pray about them, or what?

· When someone I have known and respected for years touches me in ways that confuse me and demands secrecy, do I keep the secret?

· When unexpectedly strong feelings toward someone of the same sex start to dominate my all of my waking hours and I begin to have self-destructive thoughts as I wonder how to turn off those feelings, where do I find God and hope?

· When I hear jokes that degrade God’s good gift of sexuality and make it sound like something disgusting, do I laugh along, say nothing, walk away, or speak up and say that such talk is wrong?

· When I hear that kids are supposed to talk with their parents about this stuff, who makes the first move—me or my parents?

The questions come, the decisions are pending, and yet somehow we rationalize separating the recognition of a need and the execution of a plan for meeting that need. We’ll get to it in time. The timing isn’t right. Just give it some time. With time the preadolescent’s urgency dissipates. With time the preadolescent’s curiosity fades. With time the preadolescent’s openness to adult guidance closes off. With time the preadolescent’s willingness to be vulnerable and ask the most naive or far-fetched questions will be superceded by an adolescent’s assumption that he or she alone has such questions and as such must stifle them or risk exposure as less than omniscient. With time the preadolescent’s wondering about the place of God and faith in the realm of human sexuality—or the place of human sexuality in the realm of God and faith—dissipates. With time the church’s prime opportunity to meet the needs of young persons and their families by helping to guide the decision-making process disappears.

What motivates us to withhold the words of grace, assurance, comfort, exhortation, or pardon that the church has to speak to young persons coming to terms with their maleness and femaleness and tentatively venturing into the world of intimacy? How do we justify allowing our preteens to wander unaccompanied through the maze of media, peer, and cultural misinformation regarding human sexuality? How is it that we recognize the needs of young persons and their families yet hesitate to respond?

1. The schedule. Parents, pastors, and congregations insist that their kids are over programmed and that the parents are over committed. Informal (and sometimes formal) poling identifies few families willing to sacrifice other activities in order to give time and faithful attention to the subject of sexuality. Parents ask: Why this kind of time commitment? Does it have to take so long? Why do we need to be involved? What if we have a conflict when one of the sessions is scheduled—is it OK to miss part of the program? Do we dare give beleaguered parents a break and say to them, It’s okay. You don’t have to have all the answers. Here’s a plan that works. Trust your church to be there for you.

2. The assumption that the need is being addressed elsewhere. We assume that our schools address human sexuality, when they aren’t and, most likely, they can’t. Do they cover the basics of anatomy, growth and development, and reproduction? Perhaps. Are the young persons free to bring all of the misinformation they have accumulated to the conversation? It’s unlikely. What about matters that force us to call upon specific values or moral codes or religious interpretations? Definitely not. Body parts and bodily functions cannot answer questions regarding how our sexuality teaches us about God, how spirituality and sexuality are strands of a single cord, and how we are beckoned by our sexuality into an intimate relationship with one another and with God. People of faith cannot delete God from this equation nor can they depend upon secular educators to factor God in.

3. The fear that this will put ideas into kids’ heads. The ideas are already there, and some of them are doozies. They see and they feel what is happening or isn’t happening inside and outside their bodies and they take note of what is happening with their peers. They hear and they see sexual images assaulting them from every direction, and even the most vigilant of parents cannot protect their sons and daughters from them all. The ideas are all there, but who will put in place the filters that separate the accurate from the inaccurate, the appropriate from the inappropriate? Who will assist them in taking all of the individual pieces of information and assembling them into a coherent whole—one with God at the center of the puzzle?

4. The doubt that preteens are ready for this kind and amount of information. It’s true that some are more ready than others, but what they are not ready for can be filed away for future reference. Comprehensive, faith-centered sexuality education does not simply give information to our young persons, it entrusts them with this information. In providing preadolescents with an opportunity to learn in church about their sexuality, we are affirming them as worthy of our trust, celebrating God’s trustworthiness as the Source of our sexuality, and announcing to them the great trust that God has placed in them by making them co-partners in the work of creation.

5. Parent’s fear of follow-up questions. Some information is necessary, but what happens when the body of what is understood as necessary no longer satisfies the young person’s curiosity? What happens when it all gets too personal? Some parents address this directly by bringing to the process questions such as, “If my child asks if I had intercourse before marriage, what do I say?” Other parents deal with it indirectly, and opt for nonparticipation. Being proactive seems to be the best tactic. Rather than wait and hope that these difficult questions are not asked, we establish parameters from the outset—parameters that protect both parents and children by stating what information is public and what remains private and personal. At the same time, a healthy and faithful approach to sexuality education recognizes the need for the cultivation of communication skills within the family. Open lines of communications do wonders for parents’ anxiety about the questions that might come up after the formal study is completed.

6. Kid’s resistance. This is real, not imagined. While they are by no means the majority, some young persons come to human sexuality studies just plain angry. Some manage to be angry enough that they never get there. Sadly, many parents encounter that resistance—or even the anticipation of resistance, and decide that it’s not worth the hassle. Some churches interpret this resistance as an indication that the young persons aren’t ready, the topic is not appropriate, or the design for presenting the material is flawed, and despite their recognition of the need, these churches never move toward implementation of a response. Note that there are as many young persons who can’t wait to embrace the topic and the process as those who are determined to avoid it. In between is the majority of kids—those who would rather be doing something else, but discover that the relevance of all those “something elses” quickly pales as their questions start being linked with answers.

7. The fear of polarization when hot button topics are raised. Abortion. Abstinence. Masturbation. Homosexuality. Some United Methodist congregations have already determined their position on one and four—sometimes they agree with the denominational stance, sometimes they elect to tone it up or down. Two and three aren’t as politically charged so they are discussed in softer voices than the other two. The Social Principles encourage abstinence, and no sane individual or congregation is going to look for loopholes there. Masturbation is a non-issue in the Bible and in the Discipline, and since people don’t even want to say the word, it’s unlikely that we’ll find administrative or program committees debating its appropriateness. When the possibility of offering human sexuality education in the church arises, there will always be the potential for someone saying, “What will be said about abortion, abstinence, masturbation, and homosexuality?” As soon as the question is asked, sides may very well be formed, and when sides are formed, there’s always that chance that we will be asked to align ourselves with one or the other. Rather than run the risk of polarization within the congregation, leaders elect not to implement a plan for introducing a faithful approach to human sexuality education. Unfortunately, in doing do, they are also electing not to deal with a majority of human sexuality-related matters.

Perhaps United Methodists—along with any number of their Christian brothers and sisters—need to borrow from our Jewish brothers and sisters, and mount a mezuzah on our door posts that we might be reminded in our comings and goings that we have been called to love our one and only God with heart, soul, and might (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). That one God is the God who has provided instruction in how to be a people of faith, a people of covenant, a people of community—in short, an intimate people. You’ve got to love a God who cherished union with us and cherished our union with one another so much as to first instruct us in the ways of intimacy and later, when the lessons grew dim, demonstrated perfect intimacy in and through Jesus Christ. Intimacy is about offering unconditional acceptance, about a willingness to be vulnerable, about a commitment to honesty and truth, about an inviolable trust, and about the simple pleasure of being in another’s presence. Intimacy must be taught in conjunction with our teachings about sexuality because the two are inseparable for people of faith. This is teaching we cannot delegate to anyone but the church. In opening themselves to the partnership of the church as they prepare to introduce preteens to the mystery of sexuality, parents are demonstrating their willingness to be vulnerable, their willingness to admit that this task is bigger than any one person or one couple can handle, and in so doing, are modeling the very heart of intimacy.

Having recognized our sexuality as God’s good gift, we are called to move to a response that, by our teaching and example, affirms the gift and its goodness by setting it in its proper context as a sign of that perfect intimacy that dares to be called the realm of God.

For more information about the denomination’s program of human sexuality education for preteens and their parents, contact the writer of this article and of the Created by God resources at JamesHRitchie@aol.com or 412 372-1354.

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