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Arguing over teen sex doesn't solve problem

May 13, 2006|BY Maureen Grove

This letter is in response to the April 23 letter titled "Pregnancy reaction raises red flags." As a director of a youth- serving organization for 14 years, a mother of four and the chair of the Washington County Teen Pregnancy Prevention Task Force, I felt compelled to respond.

Sexual issues and values are a family matter and parents are their children's earliest and most important teachers. Unfortunately, many parents are uncomfortable talking about sex with their children and might not know the answers to their children's important questions. Most parents want to share the responsibility for helping their children learn to make healthy choices to protect themselves and others.

While more families are speaking openly about sexuality, most parents still avoid the issue or unintentionally give their child incorrect information or information that is not age-appropriate. That has already been proven through a needs assessment that was conducted by the Washington County Community Partnership with local teens and parents.

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Of 288 teens surveyed, more than 50 percent said they had already engaged in some type of sexual activity and 49 percent of those had already engaged in vaginal sex. Of these 288 teens, nearly half said their parents had not talked to them about abstaining or delaying sex.

What's ironic is that 93 percent of the 151 parents who completed the survey said they had talked to their children about abstaining from sex. The message is getting lost.

We are not telling children what they need or want to hear. Does that mean that parents are failing their kids? No, society is failing them. We have 62 percent of parents who are saying they have many challenges in talking to their teens about sex.

They want to do a good job, but don't know where to turn with questions or support.

In Washington County, the average onset of sexual activity is age 15. Girls begin menstruating as early as age 9. That is fourth grade. And people feel elementary school is too early to start education; that we are "disrupting our children's age of innocence." Keeping our children ignorant endangers their lives. Ignorance does not guarantee innocence.

One big question I repeatedly hear is: Doesn't sexuality education cause more teens to experiment with sex? Reality-based education has been shown to encourage responsible behavior among teens, especially when children receive education prior to initiating intercourse. Ultimately, the most effective deterrents to premature intercourse are strong self-esteem, the ability to make informed choices, meaningful life options and healthy ways to express their identity. Reality-based sexuality education is an essential ingredient of this strategy.

Another question I hear is: Does sexuality education stimulate an interest in sex? No! Interest in and learning about sexuality begins at birth and continues throughout the life cycle.

Beginning in kindergarten, we can and should provide age-appropriate instruction about sexuality, beginning with simple concepts and progressing to more complex ideas as children approach adulthood.

Withholding the truth from young children leaves them vulnerable to myths and misinformation, media and peer pressure that intensify as they grow older. Children who lack knowledge, self-esteem and decision-making skills taught in reality-based curricula are also far less equipped to fend off sexual abuse or to know what to do if they are abused.

Reality-based programs teach responsible education by presenting the facts, risks, benefits and societal background involved in various forms of sexual expression. That helps children clarify their own values and choose behavior consistent with those values.

Ideally, we want our teens to remain abstinent and there is nothing wrong with that message as long as it isn't the only message. The bottom line is that the "Just say no" message isn't working. Keeping them uneducated about these issues isn't working.

Community members who ignore this reality in the face of all the evidence only serve to undermine the credibility of adults, teachers and other authority figures in the eyes of our children.

Teaching children that there is only one acceptable choice does not help them develop critical thinking skills, clarify their own values or achieve empowerment.

We need to work together as a community, not against each other. We all have different views and that's OK. What's not OK is that while we are busy arguing, trying to convince each other that our views are the "right" ones, the teen pregnancy problem in our community continues to grow.

Through parental guidance, school, faith community, after-school programs and sports, let's all work together to lower our county's teen pregnancy rate. It does take a village to raise a child.

Maureen Grove is director of Girls Inc.,

a United Way agency.

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