How Should We Teach Our Kids about SEX?

Bombarded by mixed messages about values, students are more sexually active than ever, and more confused

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But the issue of teaching kids about sex remains politically explosive. This week the results are expected to be announced in an unusually bitter election for New York City community school boards in which the religious right joined with the Catholic Church to try to elect more tradition-minded representatives. Earlier this year, the system's highly regarded Chancellor Joseph Fernandez was ousted largely because of his effort to expand condom distribution and teach children about gay life-styles. The New York City Board of Education last week chose as its new president a conservative Queens mother who had cast the deciding vote against the chancellor.

If there is one point of agreement among all parties in the debate, it is that sex education has to be about more than sex. The anatomy lesson must come , in a larger context of building relationships based on dignity and respect. The message these programs have in common: learn everything you want and need to know, and then carefully consider waiting.

Some of the most innovative and successful efforts have been launched by private religious and social-service organizations. Girls Inc., with 165 chapters nationwide, launched Preventing Adolescent Pregnancy (PAP) in 1985 to help low-income teens avoid cycles of early pregnancy, poverty and hopelessness. The first section, called Growing Together, invites girls ages 12 to 14 to talk over issues of sexuality with their mothers. The second section, Will Power/Won't Power, is designed to help girls develop strategies for postponing sexual activity and preventing pregnancy. "It's our experience that kids this age really know it's too early to be having sex," says Heather Johnston Nicholson, director of the National Resource Center for Girls Inc., in Indianapolis. "But when you're that age, you don't want to be considered a complete dweeb. We're establishing a peer group that says it's O.K. not to be sexually active."

In the third segment, Taking Care of Business, 15- to 17-year-olds are encouraged to focus on their goals. The final step, Health Bridge, helps older teens establish ties with a community clinic to ensure that they will have continued access to affordable reproductive health care. "It gives kids an opportunity to think through the reasons for not becoming sexually active," says Nicholson. But she cautions that "this is not a Just Say No program. When kids ask questions, they get straight answers. While we're focusing on postponement, we're not doing it in a context of fear and scare tactics."

That approach distinguishes PAP from the more hard-line abstinence programs that are gaining ground all across the country (see box). While both types of programs are designed to help teens make healthy decisions, there remains a fault line over whether to include detailed information on contraception or to focus on abstinence in a way that assumes that no lessons on applying condoms will be necessary.

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