by Andrea Brand
As a parent of two boys, I’m a close observer of how much media aimed at children and teens involves sex – not in public health service announcements or educational news touting developmentally appropriate health messages, but purely in advertisements and entertainment.
It’s frustrating when TV shows and movies include implied or blatant sex scenes with no reference to birth control or safer-sex practices. Contrast this with the limited sex education that is provided in public schools. Many schools emphasize abstinence, concerned that teaching a comprehensive curriculum will lead to greater sexual activity and subsequent consequences (despite numerous research studies that prove otherwise). Other schools avoid the subject matter altogether.
So if schools are not teaching sex education, who is? How do we ensure accurate information is part of a child’s development? Frequent conversations are the best way to address this – especially with a trusted parent or guardian who, while providing information, can weave the family’s values into the conversation. Simple as this might sound, this is challenging for many parents. Many of us start to hyperventilate at the mere thought.
Besides schools and parents, community resources exist to help kids make informed decisions as they grow up and become more independent. One example is the Unitarian Universalist Church, which offers a lifespan sexuality education called Our Whole Lives (OWL). This comprehensive curriculum is tailored by age group and, though secular, is value-based and involves parents, recognizing them as primary educators.
Planned Parenthood is another example of a community resource for education. It connects sexuality educators to schools or other organized groups and offers a comprehensive curriculum called Get Real for use in middle and high schools.
If your community doesn’t offer these or similar options, you might need a boost to get the conversations started with your child. That’s why I began a girls group for the daughters of some of my friends. My approach has been to maintain an open dialogue with adolescent girls in a safe, informal environment.
The premise of the group is to empower girls through an interactive discussion on a topic that changes at each meeting. I always encourage the girls to share the discussion with their parents. I also frequently touch base with parents to tell them the topic of the day.
In re-reading my blog post back when I was preparing for my first group meeting almost three years ago, I was reminded that I originally thought I would hold approximately five meetings with this cohort. In reality, we have met more than two dozen times, and my current plan is to continue meeting with them until they graduate high school.
These girls were 12 and 13 when we started meeting; now they are 15 and 16. That means we will have been meeting from 7th through 12th grade. The same girls have been in the group since its inception, and as they have matured, so have the discussion topics.
I have had numerous requests for additional girls groups. The need is there. Parents of tween and teen girls who learn about my model often ask me, with an undertone of desperation in their voice, if their daughter can join. While I wish my response was an enthusiastic yes, thus far I have had to decline because of my own commitments and schedule.
This model is easily replicated, however, and it is completely flexible. It can be developed with a pre-established number of meetings planned, or it can evolve with participants and be open-ended, addressing the needs of the group.
But we do need more facilitators – more parents, guardians, grandparents, more trusted adults. There is no shortage of materials available that can be adapted to fit the particular needs of a newly formed group. Some of my more frequent go-to resources include the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. (SIECUS), Family Life and Sexual Health (FLASH), Our Bodies Ourselves (OBOS), Advocates for Youth, and Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts (PPLM). These are but a few of the excellent resources available.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the need for a boys group. I recognize it is equally important that boys have a similar group available to them. Parents have asked me for this as well, and this is certainly something I would like to work on in the future.
I invite readers to share experiences with similar informal groups aimed at adolescents that were created to complement – or created in response to – sex education in your community.
Andrea Brand runs a girls group and is trying to improve access to accurate health and sexuality information for tweens and teens in local communities. She has a certificate in sexuality education from Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts. She occasionally documents about successes and challenges in this area in her blog, www.Isavedyouaseat.com.