I haven't blogged in a long time. It seems I'm going to have to return to my old schedule of actually scheduling time to write, because free time doesn't materialize on its own. I've been kicking this topic around for a long time in my head. I've been afraid to write about this subject, because putting it in print seems more daunting than an earnest conversation among friends on somebody's back porch. But I've been known to put myself out there. So here goes...
Abstinence is such a no-no word in our culture and I don't know why. It is the single best piece of common sense I can think of to impart to my children. When you talk about abstinence with your children you can't just say, "Don't do it because it's wrong." Abstinence is a life style choice. Abstinence says, "this is who I am, what I stand for, and where my boundaries are." Abstinence is about so much more than "not doing it" (whatever doing "it" is anymore).
When you teach abstinence you have to explain the concept of self-worth. Believe it or not, as a parent, you've been teaching abstinence your child's entire life. For example, "we don't say shut up in this house." or, "we don't hit our friends." or, "you don't talk to your mother that way." The list goes on. Abstinence, in a broad sense, is refraining from behaviors or actions with which you don't agree, or you find harmful or damaging in some way to yourself and others. For the most part, we as parents don't let our kids do something that could hurt them or their friends do we? (Please note, I do know there are instances where natural consequences come into play--I've told you twenty thousand times not to jump off the fence. I'm not going to tell you anymore and when you break your arm and are out of baseball all summer because you wouldn't listen, you'll learn.)
I'm going to start with sex/intercourse/doing it/shagging--pick a current phrase. I would like to point out that sex is everywhere. Our culture is bombarded with it on almost every level in every medium every hour of the day and night. Sex is important to talk about because sex is so much more than the actual act of copulation. The advent of technology forces us as parents to be even more vigilant. It isn't just "fast girls" or "bad boys" or "provocative dressing" or "bad reputations"anymore. We have sexting and Facebook and YouTube. Taking your clothes off for somebody may not be the act of intercourse, but you are well on your way to the murky choppy waters of sexual behavior. Kids today know six ways to Sunday how to "do stuff that's everything but [intercourse]." That just plain scares the pants off of me. I don't care who you are, how old you are, or how hip you think you are, it should scare you too.
How many times do we hear things like, "I just wanted him/her to love me." "I just wanted to fit in." "Everybody is doing it." Really? Are you going to jump off a bridge too? When you love another person or another person loves you, it is the essence of that person that is loved, not their body. Sex is an expression of love sanctioned by God for the end result of procreation among consenting adults who are usually married. You can take sex out of the picture and still have love and intimacy. If you take love out of the picture, all you've got is a short term athletic event. You can't make someone love you if you don't first love yourself. Loving yourself is the key to self-worth. This is an incredibly difficult thing for young adults to understand. I didn't understand for years. It takes practice and work to figure out how to love yourself.
And for my friends and foes alike who prefer not to put God in the mix when talking about sex, let me offer another explanation. When you love another person or another person loves you, it is the essence of that person that is loved, not their body. Sex is a consensual act between two people who trust each other. Sex is generally seen as an expression of love, but should not be confused with love. Sex is not intimacy. Sex is not proof of identity, or ownership, or relationship.
For others who still grimace at my definitions, I'll give you another reason abstinence is still the best policy: Education. Education. Education. The most reliable way to make sure you have a future is to learn a trade, a skill, or find a career path that will enable self sufficiency. Putting yourself at risk of derailing those plans with an unwanted pregnancy (sex), disease (sex or illicit intravenous drugs), or brain injury (drugs, driving under the influence) is an awfully big gamble. When you lose, you lose big. Again, the concept of self-worth arises. Aren't you worth planning a future for? What do you want to do? Where do you want to go? Who could you be if you thought it was really worth trying for?
Dear readers, please don't think I don't believe in young love. I do actually think love at first sight and high school sweethearts are both real and highly romantic entities. Please don't think I find teenagers to be stupid, vapid, shallow, remorseless, mindless, or just plain dumb. I think teenagers are feisty, creative, independent, curious, interesting, and sometimes quite charming, but also very young, highly inexperienced, prone to impulse, and not well-practiced in self-denial, or patience. Just in case you're wondering, abstinence doesn't apply only to girls--I have two sons. Please don't think I believe pre-marital sex causes life-long damage or leads to a one-way ticket to hell. Not true.
I was once a teenager. I did go to high school--with boys. I was once a college freshman. There were boys and parties and alcohol and drugs in college. I learned a few lessons the hard way. Sometimes learning the hard way is the only way, but that doesn't mean grown-ups should stop trying to teach the lesson. If I can make some of those hard choices easier by preaching abstinence to my children early, I'm absolutely going to do it.
As a young adult, I often said crushing things about my own parents. I thought they were old meanies who didn't want me to have any fun. I thought they didn't understand me. And sometimes, I thought they were more than unreasonable. What I didn't know then, but have appreciated for many years now, is that they gave me the gift of self-worth by helping me keep myself out of trouble. They gave me the gift of a long youth so that I had time to navigate the murky waters of adult behavior. They gave me the gift of boundaries so "just saying no" to impaired driving and experimenting with drugs and staying out of the backseat of cars was an easy choice. They were by no means perfect in this regard, but the message was clear. You don't have to be a hard-ass to make your message clear (although it's probably not a bad idea every now and then). In fact, most experts say flexibility is an unlikely ally here. There are ways to give a little to get a little from your child without compromising your message or the boundaries.
I was by no means perfect, but I did know what I wanted for myself. I believed that a college education was mine for the taking if I wanted it. I believed that the right guy to love on every level would come along someday, but he would want an intelligent person to talk to when we weren't having sex! I believed that drugs was a bad idea period. I believed driving while impaired was just stupid and that if and when I chose to drink under age, I was going to have to be responsible for the risks I was taking. I believed all those things because I had a sense of self-worth. I believed my life was meaningful and I had something to offer other people. Incidentally, I still believe my life is meaningful. I still believe I have something to offer people. And I still believe that if and when I choose to drink, the alcohol is not responsible for my actions, I am.
Believing your life is meaningful and that you have something to offer is basically the bottom line when you talk about abstinence. I don't understand why we aren't preaching these ideas from the front of every middle/high school gymnasium and auditorium in the country. I don't understand how handing out condoms and explaining how birth control pills work to teenagers replaces the idea that keeping your eyes on the prize will keep you out of trouble.
The accepted lamentation of "well they're just going to do it anyway and we might keep a few unwanted pregnancies from happening" is pathetic. It's a poor excuse. It's a lazy thought process and it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. We as a culture make a huge mistake and thoroughly under-mind our children's self-worth when we only preach "safer sex." The concept of safe sex implies sex is inherently unsafe. Wow, what a mixed message to send to a child. Let's make sex even harder to figure out. Where is the frank discussion of the emotional toll on your health and well-being? Where is the open dialogue to help our kids navigate their feelings and their fears and their questions? Why is it socially acceptable to talk about safe sex physically but not emotionally?
Do I support wearing condoms among sexually active people--teenagers or adults? Absolutely. Am I going to give condoms to my teenage son with a "just in case buddy" and walk out of the room? Hell no. Am I going to sit him down at the kitchen table for a long and very uncomfortable talk about the responsibilities of unzipping his jeans? You're damned right. Am I going to tell him that girls will interrupt his college dreams? Yes. Will we talk about birth control and disease? Of course. Am I going to preach against any and all drugs? Every single solitary time. Am I going to enforce the legal drinking age in my home? You betcha. I'm his parent. That's my job. Am I going to be understanding and try my best to help him navigate true loves and false loves and just plain hormones? Yes, yes, yes. Why will I do all this heart-wrenching, gut-busting, terrifying, hard to talk about stuff? Because I believe in his worth as an individual.
Self-worth is one of the greatest gifts we can instill in our children. We have to plant the seeds during their youth and hope that as they mature into adults, they become masters of their own self-worth. I believe self-worth begins with abstinence. Abstinence is not a dirty word. It's not old-fashioned. It's not frigid, naive, or unhealthy. Abstinence is the freedom to say, "this is where I draw my boundaries" on any activity from sky diving to sexting. Abstinence is about believing that you, not pop culture, not your friends, not the crowd, choose the who, what, when, where, why, and how of your behavior. Abstinence is about so much more than "not doing it."