First published here 2/2/06
There was a time in my life when I understood calculus, differential equations, and advanced physics. Now, however, those brain cells have been permanently deleted. Therefore, I am happy to have someone whose advanced math and physics brain cells are still intact teach my children the wonders of integrals, vectors, and quantum mechanics. On the other hand, it is my job to teach my children about sex and sexuality. Because of this, my 10th grader is now happily engaged in a study hall each day, rather than sitting through the “morally neutral” presentation of human sexuality offered by this quarter’s health class. The public school program pays lip service to abstinence but with a “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” says, “Here is the rest of the story.” They proclaim to the students, “You are not ready to have sex now!” Okay. When will they be ready? The program can’t say “after marriage” because that is a moral stricture and this program is ---all together now—“morally neutral”. So they use the tried and true parental line, “When you are older.” This is followed up with “We know some of you will not follow our advice and are going to be sexually active, so here is what you need to know.”
I am not going to hide any information from my children. Discussions about sex and sexuality have proceeded in an age appropriate fashion their entire lives. I want them to have all the facts. I talk to them about contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, and homosexuality. I want them to receive this information within the framework of our values formed by our Catholic faith. My children need more than abstinence education. They need character formation and development of the virtue of Chastity. The virtue of chastity is not the same as abstinence. Abstinence means the absence of sex. Then you get into the semantics game of “Does this count?” “How far can I go and still be abstinent?” Chastity offers an understanding of the gift of our sexuality. It promotes respect for one’s own body. It offers the appreciation that a sexual relationship is a giving relationship. Sexual love is the result of rather than the source of marital love. In the first encyclical of his papacy, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI describes this marital love as the ultimate reflection of God’s loving relationship with mankind. This is what I want my children to learn.
The CCD program offers a morally acceptable education on human sexuality. Still, this is an adjunct to what my husband and I teach at home. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: Education in the faith by parents should begin in the child’s earliest years. This already happens when family members help one another to grow in faith by the witness of a Christian life in keeping with the Gospel. Family catechesis precedes, accompanies, and enriches other forms of instruction in the faith (2226). Very clearly, my husband and I are in charge of educating our children.
This can be a daunting task. It is not easy to talk about sex and virtue when your kids are in the middle of an adolescent hormonal milieu. That is why we have to start talking early. Prepare them for the changes of puberty, both physical and emotional. As with any other aspect of faith formation, parents need to be ever alert to the “teachable moment”. This is a very gradual process, not a sudden epiphany. We don’t give one long talk about sexuality. We give hundreds or even thousands of small comments that shape and mold our child’s character. So as parents, we need to prepare ourselves. We need to be clear about the Church’s teachings. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is a pivotal work on human sexuality. However, the full text can be intimidating. I recommend one of the works by Christopher West as a good starting point. In addition, read Real Love by Mary Beth Bonacci and Did Adam and Eve have Belly Buttons by Matthew Pinto. Once you are finished reading them, give them to your teens to read. Then listen to them. Don’t launch into your analysis of the books. Let your children tell you what they understood. Ask questions. Help them to make the lessons their own conclusions, not just parental lectures.
It is not easy to be the primary source of information on human sexuality. That is why so many parents abdicate this duty to the school system. When I opt my child out of the school sex education program, it is not because I don’t want her to receive this education. I am just giving the school system a polite “no thank you. I appreciate your offer to teach my child about sex, but this is my job. Please feel free, however, to cover calculus and physics.”