Brenda Destro, D.S.W.
This speech was presented at a July 2, 1996 Capitol Hill briefing regarding the Defense of Marriage Act. The briefing was sponsored by the Family Research Council.
Good morning. Today, I would like to discuss the following points:
Sex education contains many delicate and controversial topics, such as homosexuality and same-sex relationships, which are not presented with a lot of consideration to the developmental needs of preteens/teens. This puts these children at risk of problems ranging from developmental delay to more serious emotional problems or even physical harm.
Developmental theorists, such as Piaget, Erikson, Kohlberg, and even Freud believe that there are distinct differences in personality, in thinking, in socialization, and in morality among children and adults of different ages. The pattern by which each of us goes through these stages is an individual, interrelated, and interdependent process. For the most part, each of us acquires skills in a sequential manner. Moving into one stage requires the completion of the previous stage. And, the absence of certain skills, makes the learning of new behaviors much harder. Most school curricula is designed around the theories of Piaget, and to a lesser degree Erikson and Kohlberg.
Before I discuss the issue of homosexuality, let me give another example of a less controversial topic in sex ed that is usually presented in a manner that is not consistent with cognitive development or the learning capabilities of preteens and teens: decision-making. Many sex ed curricula teach decision-making to children, ages 10-18, so that they make appropriate choices regarding their sexual behavior. They learn a model that helps them identify a problem, develop options, assess options, and then make a decision. Although my first reaction, along with many parents, was that this is a good thing for preteens and teens to learn, there is a problem. Many preteens and teens are not able to think ahead, assess risk, or fully consider the feelings of others. Instead, they are more likely to be self-centered, idealistic, present-oriented, and impulsive. The result is that these kids may be able to memorize or learn the elements of a d-m model, but they are not likely to use it.
But the problem is more serious than a teen or preteen not using a d-m model. It is a problem of expecting preteens and teens to act like adults, when they should be acting like teens. As much as none of us like it, teens are supposed to be self-centered, idealistic, and grounded in the present. These characteristics provide protection for the teen who is in the process of experimenting with new ideas and behaviors. Ultimately, they make mistakes, but hopefully they learn from these mistakes. It is much easier to brush off mistakes when you are self-centered, present-oriented, and oblivious to consequences. The role of parents and adults is to provide a structure that allows the teen to experiment consistent with their capabilites, and then to be available to help them learn from the experience. What is taught in sex ed asks a child to skip an important stage and try to make critical decisions without the skills and guidance needed. This expectation can and does lure preteens and teens into high risk situation that are beyond their current capabilities, placing them at risk of an unwanted pregnancy or even AIDS. What is needed is for the child to experiment on a more gradual basis that does not overwhelm them. They should experiment, first, with safer tasks and gradually learn to handle more risk, and always with the guidance of a parent or other caring adult.
In the case of learning about homosexuality and same-sex relationships, the potential for harm also exists. These are topics that are now commonly found in sex ed curricula offered through most junior high and high schools as a result of the growing debate about homosexuality. But, as it's being taught, many of these teens and preteens are entering a phase in their psychosocial development where it is characteristic for a girls to have one close girlfriend and boys to have one close boyfriend. This is an important phase in learning emotional intimacy that is critical to forming healthy relationships. Yet, there is no distinction made between the two events in the sex ed curricula.
All of us, as children first learn emotional intimacy or closeness in the family as we bond with mother, father, siblings, etc. As we reach puberty, we begin to reach outside the family to form similar bonds with friends of the same sex, and then with groups of friends of both sexes. A healthy level of intimacy beomes an important element of romantic relationships and sexual relationships in marriage. This process for the most part occurs in a sequential fashion. At each stage the child learns a new level of emotional intimacy or closeness, if the child has acquired the necessary skills in a non-threatening and non-sexual environment. If they skip a stage or experience a crisis in a stage, the negative aspects of the stage will predominate making it difficult to handle the tasks of the next stage. One way to alleviate the problems is to go back to that stage and complete the tasks.
So what happens to the preteens and teens who receive information about homosexuality and same sex marriages at the same time that they are bonding with their friends, around the ages of 11 to 14. Probably for most preteens and teens, they is no harm because of the support they have from family and friends who can help them distinguish between the two events. But for many children with family or personal problems and no one to turn to for help, there may be confusion. That confusion can turn to a fear that they may be homosexual, when they are not. They may then turn away from their friends and interrupt an important developmental process. In some cases, because of the confusion about this topic, well-meaning but misguided counselors would even have these children believe that they are homosexual, when they are not even sexually mature.
As the debate continues and homosexuality and same-sex marriages gain legitimacy, I foresee these topics gaining greater visibility in sex ed curricula. If it is not presented in the best interests of children, but rather in the best interest of the homosexual rights movement, there is potential for more harm.
Brenda Destro, D.S.W., is an adjunct professor for studies on marriage and family at the John Paul II Institute. Dr. Destro has served as a social work consultant for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Adolescent Pregnancy and the Institute for Human Resources (IHR) in Rockville, Md.
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