At an event sponsored by the West Cook YMCA at the Oak Park-River Forest High School last week, Jim Conway tried to convince his audience that the more well-rounded an adolescent appears to be the less they will engage in high-risk behaviors.
That’s a no-brainer, you might say.
Indeed, the findings of the Search Institute, on whose behalf Conway was speaking, confirm what most parents believe to be true. But there is one outcome that might be a bit counterintuitive. The institute’s research indicates that neither moralistic preaching nor fear prevent sexual activity. What produces abstinence is a life so full of meaning and affirmation that kids are ruled by their dreams rather than by their hormones that might otherwise delude them into looking for love in all the wrong places.
The group’s research shows that 34 percent of adolescents with nine or 10 of the 40 “character assets” identified in the study are sexually active (defined as having had sexual intercourse three or more times). Only 3 percent with 31 to 40 of these assets are sexually active.
The 40 character assets identified by the Search Institute include family support, participation in youth programs, clear rules and consequences at school, doing at least one hour of homework every night, taking personal responsibility, and seeking to resolve conflict non-violently.
On the basis of the Search data, I want to question two opinions I hear around town a lot. One opinion, usually expressed by liberals, is that sexual desire is natural, and therefore what parents ought to do is educate their children on how to engage in it safely. Safely, of course, means doing it without getting pregnant or catching an STD. The research, however, seems to argue that healthy kids either seldom do it or don’t do it at all.
The second opinion, often voiced by conservatives, is that adults should preach to their kids that sexual intercourse before you are married is a sin. Now I can relate to that attitude on one level. The problem, however, is that it doesn’t work. My experience – and I don’t have data to back it up – is that being raised that way makes kids either neurotic or so bottled up that they explode when they finally do “let it all out.”
My daughter, for example, was given small glasses of beer or wine at picnics or holiday dinners from the time she was 5 years old and – as far as I know, which of course is limited – she has seldom abused alcohol. When she went to college she reported that many of her classmates who had been raised as teetotalers not only got drunk, but got stoned, lights-out totally wasted … and often.
I’m trying to make two points here. One is that the vision of “waiting” is not necessarily a throwback to an outdated, unscientific, moralistic picture of reality that no longer fits with a liberated world view. On the contrary, what the Search Institute data seem to argue is that it is precisely those young people who are liberated who choose to wait.
My second point is that fear and moralizing is not the way to go. What is needed is for this village to make the raising of young people one of its highest priorities. For years now, a few people have been pleading for more youth programming. Programming is necessary but not sufficient.
What is called for, as we used to say, is an attitude adjustment. What is needed is a village-wide buy in to the idea that it really does take a whole village to raise a child. It’s not just the task of the schools or families. It’s everybody’s vocation.