The other day, the principal at my school sent me this article. It broke my heart. It's about a girl who took a nude picture of herself and texted it to her boyfriend. From there it got into the hands of her former best-friend who made it go viral. The boyfriend and former best friend were arraigned on child pornography charges. The poor girl who took the picture lived through hell and basically had her life destroyed. If you have a teen or are a teen, you need to read this article. This story has haunted me because it seems so preventable.
You see, the child in question came from a broken home and was used to having all the time she wanted alone with her electronics. At no point in this article--until after the tragedy--does it seem to have occurred to any parent to monitor their child's texts, to ask questions, or simply to be present.
This article notes something that mature adults should already know--and tell the children (including teens) under their care: sex, and anything related to it, is not something to be taken lightly. It is a fire--warming, life-giving and wonderful. But it can also burn and leave a young life in emotional ashes. I'm not even talking about right and wrong or religious concepts of sin--just mental health and social well-being.
When I was a teen, we did stupid things, too. But we didn't have the internet to make permanent our every gaffe or goof. And, we also had a variety of social barriers to protect us from doing things that were stupid to a potentially life-altering degree. I think of the cultural norms of my day like guard rails.
These guard rails protected us from unwittingly ruining our lives. Yes, you could break through the rails if you wanted to, but you had to try. It was hard to do accidentally. There was a culture that would have discouraged us from doing this kind of thing even if we'd had the technology. Parents, teachers, schools, and the larger culture in general.
These guard rails were community standards, traditional values, parents who were parents, not buddies and who didn't mind making us mad and weren't afraid to butt in where they were not wanted (but were very needed).
I suppose you could look at my upbringing and say it was restrictive and that it inhibited my wilder inclinations. To that I say, "Yep. It was. Thank heaven." Now that I'm almost 40, I regret nothing about my strict upbringing. In fact, I'm grateful for it.
The culture we live in today is nearly opposite. It encourages kids to do stuff like this. They are bombarded with sexual images and content everywhere. Media, including that aimed at teens, gives them the idea that this sort of thing is edgy and exciting and fun. And we're surprised when they act on all they absorb?
We have collectively pushed the age of sexual awareness to such an early age that they are initiated before they are mature enough to handle it. Here's exhibit A. Abercrombie and Fitch has been catching well-deserved flack for marketing push-up, padded bikini tops to children--like second graders.
This article from the Wall Street Journal is by a mother of daughters in which she laments the current proclivity of parents to allow and encourage their daughters dress provocatively. She makes a good point I agree with: I don't think many people, upon maturity think, "Boy, you know what would have made my childhood better? I should have started having sex sooner."
In spite of this, though, we're creating a culture where children are going to naturally see themselves as sexual beings very early. They'll experiment and then reap the consequences. It's hard to stop the train once they are on it.
Culturally, in terms of sex, we've lowered the driving age, increased the speed limit, given everyone cars, and then taken away the guard rails.
This is tragic because kids, like the kids in that article, do something stupid--and it ends up being a permanent scar.
As a teacher, I'm around kids all day. I hear them talk, I see what they write on Facebook. I'm not naive. I know teens think about sex and many of them think they want it. Well, they want to skip school, too. They don't want to do their homework or eat their broccoli. But we, their teachers and parents push back on those things.
We can't control adolescents and make every decision for them. At the same time, our job as adults is not to facilitate the every whim and wish and desire of kids. The fact they want something does not make it good or wise or healthy.
Our job is to be guard rails and say, "No. I know you think you want this, but no. Someday you'll thank me." We need to be the guard rails. We can't prevent them from making big mistakes--but we can at least try to make it so they don't unwittingly lumber into pitfalls.
Incidentally, there's a great blog post about this. This blog post is an extended, thoughtful discussion by a young adult about sex in young adult (YA) novels. I highly recommend it. She thinks there is too much and she specifically argues with several of the rationales I have heard over the years. One of her best points is this: why do adults feel the need to push sex on kids so soon?
Why don't we push back the other way a bit? Let's be the guard rails instead of just saying, "Start your engines," or not doing anything and letting the kids be carried away on the cultural tides.
If an adult exposes an adolescent to pornography, or behaves in other lewd ways, that adult will go to jail and face being shunned for the rest of their lives. That is right and just. But, why do we let our culture and corporations sexualize our children in ways we would never allow an individual to do?
For example, young girls dressing provocative ways is not precocious, sassy, or cute. It's sick, sick, sick! Why do we let corporations and pop culture do what we would never allow an individual to do and sexualize children--and that includes teenagers. It's an ugly trend and it's getting worse.
I know parents who would be horrified if their child were to have sexual encounters, but they don't bat an eye at their children dressing in revealing clothing or imitating adult styles and manners. They don't bat an eye at their child consuming media with sexual innuendoes and images. If kids are surrounded by--and participate in the rituals of--a sex-soaked culture, guess what they're going to do at ever earlier ages?
We've taken the guard rails away and replaced them with a few lame orange cones.
This is not about sex per se. It's about maturity. Sex is powerful stuff. In the right circumstances, it can be powerfully wonderful. But in the wrong circumstances--specifically, when it is not in a stable, mature relationship--it's powerfully damaging. It's like fire.
I don't want to argue right now about the right time for consenting adults. For the moment, I just wish we could all agree that anyone under 18 is really not ready. Failing that, could we at least say 16? And if they're not ready for the act, then they're not ready for all the ancillary stuff--watching it endlessly in media, dressing in provocative ways, etc.
I wish we could draw a boundary around children--CHILDREN, for crying out loud!!!!!--and say, "No!" No sexually suggestive advertising, movies, music, clothing. I'm not talking about the government or censorship. I'm talking about parents saying, "You're not going to smoke. You're not going to talk drugs. You're not going to eat all the ice cream you want. And you're not wearing, watching, texting, or doing sexual stuff. Period."
I wish more adults could be gutsy and grown-up enough to say, "There's plenty of time for that. A whole lifetime. For now, figure out who you are. What you like. What you don't like. Get to know people. Make friends--boys and girls. Be a kid. Try new activities." Or, to borrow from Stephen Sondheim, "Stay a child while you can stay a child."
Let's be the guardrails.
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Thoughts about raising and teaching adolescents. You can read the complete series here. (What in the world are Middle School Mondays?) Click here.
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Genre: YA Speculative
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