I’m back up on Slant33 again, this time responding along with Michelle Lang and buddy Mark Oestricher to the question What’s the difference between teaching middle schoolers and high schoolers about dating and sexuality? My response is below, but do check the link for Marko’s and Michelle’s comments as well.
This is an essential question. I have come to a clear understanding that for many young people, this area is one of the larger challenges in authentically living out their discipleship. Yet, in asking the question, we have overlooked an audience of potential collaborators in this task—their parents. If all the recent research about how young people reflect the values of their parents, then we certainly must find ways to encourage parents to be involved in sharing our good news about love, dating, and sexuality.
One of my favorite activities to engage adults in, to inform their sharing messages of dating and sexuality, is to get them to think back to their own early dating years. They are asked to think of an early, positive experience of touch in a dating experience—holding hands, a kiss, a slow dance, etc. We carefully dissect the experiences into their own mental photographic images of those moments, then how they would describe the facts of those moments, followed by their own emotions at the time.
That activity is immediately followed by asking parents and adults to write their own newspaper headlines for an article about dating and sexuality. Often, responses include Don’t Do It!, True Love Waits, and Protect Yourself or Protect Your Heart.
It is always fascinating to watch the room engage in a significant mood change. The smiles, laughter, and joy of reminiscing about long-ago loves quickly transforms into anxiety and fear about their young people having similar experiences.
Our challenge as the church, as adults and parents, is to confront young people’s expectations that we will default to NO regarding this topic. We need to surprise them by affirming that yes, we actually think love, dating, and sex are all pretty great…within moderation intended to honor the value and worth of each person involved.
Middle school years are challenging for parents. The young people in their lives are transforming before their very eyes from the sweet, innocent things they happily used to be. In the middle school years, we should be resourcing parents regarding:
How to have “the talk.” Most likely, parents have already checked this one off on their parenting task lists. We need to encourage them to pursue ongoing conversations about sexuality, especially related to basic theological concepts, like what it means to be “created in the image and likeness of God.” Recognize that your efforts in assisting parents in their formational role will also constitute formation for many of the adults as well.
How to discuss and monitor relationships/friendships. Offer parents tips and cues to engage their young people in conversations.
How to debrief sexual content from movies, television, and music. Again, assist parents in conducting conversations related to these areas rather than lectures.
In the high school years, young people are moving away from a theoretical understanding of dating and sexuality and getting closer to having more practical needs. Therefore, we should be resourcing parents in:
Being able to assist young people in determining appropriate boundaries for their young people. If parents find themselves being able even just to talk with one another, they can usually assist one another in determining a community standard about curfews and expectations regarding appropriate ages to group date, car date, etc. Youth ministers can be helpful in placing their conversations in the context of a covenant agreement that includes both discussion and prayer.
Being able to be an effective listener. Ask their adolescents to work toward determining what constitutes an appropriate relationship.
Modeling appropriate and respectful behaviors. Young people learn from the attitudes of their fathers, mothers, and other key adults regarding what is right and acceptable in relationships with the opposite sex. We need to watch ourselves because our young people are certainly watching us and the values we communicate with our actions and words.
For me as a senior in high school, my parents gave me a very special gift and a lesson. They took me and my steady girlfriend at the time on a double date. In a delightful and charming evening, I learned significant lessons in respect and chivalry as well as maintaining good conversation with the opposite sex. Instead of the images of adult relationships from television and movies influencing me in my formative years, I was blessed to have the memory of a special night to remind me of how dating adults can and should relate to one another.