About a year ago, my wife, Amy, and I had the privilege of talking to a group of teenage mothers, and those expecting, about many different topics related to their health and future. One of these was sexuality. As I relayed information about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and noted research, which highlighted a significant increase in the types of STDs diagnosed over the past forty years, I stopped and asked them, “What do you think about this?” From the back of the room, one hand quickly shot up with the simple response, “It sounds like a lot of people are doing things that they shouldn’t be doing.”
As the weeks and months passed by, I found myself unintentionally coming back to that moment. Beyond the simple profundity of the statement, I was struck by the young lady’s willingness to make an observation that could have easily ruffled the feathers of her classmates and undermined the unspoken culture. But what was particularly striking, and cuts across all ages and experiences and ethnicities and backgrounds, was that deep down, beneath pride and fear, she, like us, seemed really interested in the truth. A few weeks earlier, Amy and I had passed out a short activity in which these students were asked to describe their strengths and weaknesses, their worries, and their aspirations. Spending time reviewing their answers, it became clear that their goals looked so much like ours. They yearned to be “the best mother possible” and “have a happy life with a great family.” They wanted to “graduate from college” and have a “nice job” and a “nice house.” And above all, when asked what they hoped most for their children, one girl put it best, “I hope they follow their dreams, and don’t make the same mistakes I’ve made in my life…”
Beneath all of our layers, through all of our struggles, we come to realize just how similar we are. Although we come from many different demographic and ethnic backgrounds, research has been clear that we share more commonalities than we do not. Cultural differences do exist, but greater diversity exists within a specific cultural group than exists between differing cultural groups. But in our call to embrace those of different backgrounds, it appears that we have begun to confuse demographic diversity with moral diversity. In his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathon Haidt notes that in our noble and necessary attempt to promote greater rights for people of all backgrounds, what he calls demographic diversity, evidence suggests over the past century that we have slipped into moral diversity. He characterizes moral diversity as a “lack of consensus on moral norms and values.” Values such as self-restraint, sacrifice for the public good, and delayed gratification, which previously were held dear by the masses, no longer seem to be promoted consistently throughout our communities. In a related manner, Haidt suggests that one of the best predictors of the health of the neighborhood is the degree to which adults are responsive to the inappropriate behaviors of children other than their own. When consistent standards of behavior are enforced by all, the neighborhood remains vibrant; when adults look away and mind their own business, neighborhoods tend to fall in disarray. This same principle seems to apply in our schools and in our homes.
Which brings us back to the statements made that one particular morning, and the words written into the pages that remain in the hearts of those mothers today. Are we being completely truthful with them about what really matters in playing the parenting odds in their favor? Or do we allow certain factors to get in our way of being truthful with them, and subsequently with our own children? Most importantly, are we selling the “gold standard” and all the possibilities and peace it provides? Greater still, do we afford our youth the opportunity to develop the discipline it requires?
Returning to the topic of sexuality and parenthood, a few basic statistics bear revealing outside the controversy associated with these issues. One, almost all researchers agree that abstinence for youth, whether it be primary or secondary (i.e., abstinence after a period of sexual activity) is best for many reasons. Beyond the prevention of unintended pregnancy and STDs, sexually active teens are significantly more likely to experience depression, suicide, and use illegal substances. Although disputed by some, evidence also increasingly suggests that sexual activity, especially early on, serves to hormonally bond women, and possibly men, to their sexual partners. Therefore, it seems that early, casual sexual encounters would make it more difficult for women to “think through” the proper decision regarding a mate as they feel physiologically pulled to remain with whom they have been sexually active. For women who do get pregnant and have children, and for all single parents, they also face a very uphill road. Children of single parents are at greater risk for academic, social, emotional, and psychological problems. Parenting is tough for the most natural of caregivers, even when you have help. Most of us intuitively know this. But once the facts register, layers of resistance, of emotion, of personal experiences, and of practicality begin to set in. It leads to a translation for our kids that may look less like the truth and more like the floating clouds above.
In attempting to disentangle the factors associated with this translation, I will first start at the discomfort we feel in talking about personal matters. Many, whether as parents or teachers, understandably feel queasy when the topic of sexuality comes up. We seek to avoid, and jump around this topic because of its private nature and potential reflection into our own choices. But when talking to groups of youth whose experiences differ from our own, there is a further uneasiness in sharing information that may suggest that their lifestyles, or that of their parents, are playing against the odds. Quickly, educators may become worried that viewpoints project moral or faith-based judgments, and so they shy away. In discussions with administrators and teachers regarding this issue, it appears that fear exists largely of two things: legal action and angry parents. But when adults responsible for educating our youth (e.g., teachers, parents, clergy, etc…) fail to address this issue, our children suffer because they never get to hear the genuine, informed beliefs of those who care deeply about them.
Let’s apply this further in the area of youth and sexuality. When the topic of birth control comes up, it is often accompanied by the resignation that most teens will have sex so we might as well teach them to protect themselves. First of all, statistics again bear repeating. A study published in the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2005 indicated that 47% of high school students had sexual intercourse. Which means that over half did not. The percentage of sexually active high schoolers had actually declined over the past decade, although the average age of first sexual intercourse had gotten younger and the number of partners had increased (for those who were sexually active). In a culture where teens hear and feel that everybody is doing it, and they aren’t, we all know that most of us do not want to feel like the odd, unsexed duck. Strangely, though, as Miriam Grossman points out in her book Unprotected, we don’t resign ourselves to lower standards when it comes to teaching our teens about good health. Even though 75% of the U.S. male population is overweight or obese, it is not as if doctors and educators are counseling our teens to supplement chocolate and potato chips for fruits and vegetables. And so if abstaining from sexual activity really is the best way to promote positive outcomes and better health, it seems we really need to be embracing the gold standard of abstinence, not just obligatorily mentioning it.
The same goes for single versus dual parenthood. I have heard it said in working with disadvantaged teens that because most of them come from single parent families, there is little likelihood that they will marry and co-parent their children. Therefore, this belief justifies supporting the choice of the single parent lifestyle and doing little to really promote the idea of looking at marriage and adoption as viable options. Instead, these topics are branded as being too “political,” when in fact they have little to do with politics and everything to do with choices that may define a lifetime. It is as if we think our teens—to borrow from a highly quoted movie line— “can’t handle the truth.” We treat these kids, and in some ways our own kids, as victims of a family and a society that repeatedly sells them short. I cannot help but think that we are making a big mistake when we do this, as we ignore the very words that our teenage mothers etched in front of us.
Finally, when it comes time to teaching the gold standard as research would support, it often seems that we quickly forget the lessons our advertisers and marketers know so well. When Blackberry goes to sell their product, it emotionally “pulls us in” to all that it can provide. But when we go to sell abstinence and marriage, it often seems tritely done in a mode of fear and resigned obligation. Don’t get me wrong—fear of teen parenthood and STDs can, and should be, a strong discourager. But, beyond this, from the days of late elementary when sex education is discussed at home and school, do we really SELL all that abstinence and marriage can provide? Regardless of our own choices, and that of the parents of our students, do we embrace the freedom and peace of mind and possibilities that come when we submit ourselves to particular truths, prepare ourselves for the challenging temptations, and seek to take the best road even when mistakes are made? In my own life, even with amazing parents and dedicated educators, I am not sure that this level of enthusiasm and fervor and commitment was shown. For me, I was fortunate it did not change the outcome. But, for so many, the collective will and intellect and understanding that all culminates in a momentary decision of restraint versus temptation may, in the end, make all the difference. We have to love our girls and boys enough to teach them that they can stand strong, and be more than the urges they feel. Otherwise, all of us simply become conveyer belts of information and not models of inspiration.
A few months after our meeting with the girls, I was sitting in my office with the mom of a long-time patient. She had been a teenage mother herself and raised her son alone, and like the hundreds of single parents I had worked with before, I admired and loved her greatly for the struggles she had worked through in order that his road would be a better one. But, on this particular day, she surprised me with her blunt remark. Although many of my patients’ parents before had acknowledged this pathway was not the one they would have chosen, she exclaimed out of the blue, “You know, the breakdown of the family is one of the biggest reasons that we are having all the trouble today with our kids.” Frankly, I was taken aback, because in acknowledging how her own mistakes had contributed to the trend, she was courageously foregoing the pride that held so many back before. For as she and her son struggled along, it had become about seeing the truth for what it was, and embracing the hope that her son would do the same.