Friday, October 3, 2008

Teaching abstinence for inner city school teenagers

For many teachers, especially in inner city schools, the very idea of talking about abstinence might seem frightening if not absurd. However could you aproach a subject that for most of the children will be rejected out of hand as something that belongs to medieval times, something that does not even seem an option in their world and that has about the popularity of a dentist visit.

Their view, and the reasons behind it...
When I was teaching in an inner city highschool, I did an interesting exercise with my students. I asked them when they thought someone was ready for sex. Being from a rather worldly upbringing and in a less reputable neighbourhood, I was pleased to see that they at least still had romantic notions. "You should only have sex with someone if you love them very, very much. It should never be a game, and you should always be honest."I agreed with them of course and then prodded a bit further. I asked them when they had been in love for the first time. For most of them they described that occuring when they were twelve or thirteen. Then I asked if they still were with that same young man or young woman. None of them were. That made them think a bit. In the end we came out at the idea that: you should only have sex with someone if you love them very much, and when you are in a commited relationship. Now does that sound like the recipe for "wait till you get married" to you?
Nearly 80 percent of these children come from broken families, so unfortunately they do not define "marriage" as a commited relationship anymore. They have seen numerous girlfriends and stepdads pass the spectrum and have become jaded to the idea that marriage actually means something. But they want it to mean something, oh yes they do. One of the big challenges many of these children face is that, when they look around them in their daily lives, they do not find any rolemodels in which footsteps they wish to follow, morally or otherwise. So they look elsewhere for rolemodels. And here the media is of course the biggest influence in their lives from 'elsewhere'. I will not turn this post in a lament over the evil influences of the media. I think each of us can learn how to handle the media in a responsible manner, but that is a matter for another entry. Just lamenting over the influence of the media on our children or complaining to the children themselves about what they watch (especially in the situation as a teacher where you have no control over it) will not have any effect and will actually put them in a defensive position. The only way around this is to try and offer yourself up as an alternative rolemodel. You could be surprised as to the effect of sheer curiosity about someone who seems so totally different from what they are used to.
Of course, when you try to talk so openly and honestly with teenagers, you have to expect to have the tables turned, and be asked the question: "So what about you?" I have had the blessing during my last two years of teaching to have met my husband and be courted by him, so my students have known my reply during 'singlehood', 'being in love', 'courtship' and engagement Sometimes when ministering to the youth you have to be able to speak plain and honestly about your own life. This includes speaking about mistakes or struggles. If you give the teenagers your respect in the conversation, they will reflect this back to you.

Some common pittfalls in speaking about sex with teenagers
I believe it is a very common mistake today to think that many of these young people are 'lost to this message' anyway and that it is impossible to make a change in their behaviour. What is impossible, or at the very least ineffective is a three day song and dance routine when they are thirteen, blinding them into making a pledge of purity and then leaving them to their own devices without equipping them with a sound and consistant reasoning about why they owe it to themselves to think twice before giving in to a culture that tells them that sex should not be more than fun and games. Over the last few years I have seen a worrying trend in which we think the only way to get children to actually learn or understand something is to seduce them by 'making it fun' and 'coming down to their level'. That last especially implies a basic disrespect for the young people, and for the message we have. We don't see it anymore as something that will actually empower them and we don't see them anymore as people capable of grasping this concept. And we don't see them anymore as people with a mind of their own, capable of developing ideas but only as consumers of what can be pushed into them if we wrap it up the right way.
If we pay more attention to a pleasing packaging under the heading 'a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down' we lose sight of the realities and the pressures these teenagers will face and lure them in a rosy hued fantasy that will be easily overthrown by the next rosy hued fantasy of being in love with someone for the rest of their life at age sixteen. I will certainly not advocate boring your students, but to speak with them in a realistic and consistent fashion, respecting both them and the weight of the message you wish to impart to them.

The results
When thinking or predicting the results of abstinence education, we have to think long term. I do not believe that three day or one week programs make a big difference. However, long term and serious education can have an effect. It can help make young people stand still and actually think, make them re examine some ideas that they have always taken for granted. Standing still and thinking, learning to re value themselves and actually understanding that there are possibilities for them that they may not have even considered is in my opinion the first and most important step in putting young people on the way to abstinence. There are further steps we can take after that to encourage them on that path, but that as well is substance for another post.

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