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Promote esteem, not sexuality // Abstinence follows, says educator

Teens, what do you think about sex education? Brr-r-r-r-ring! Time to wake up!

Something about what we are telling our teen-agers about sex isn't working.

Because, guess what? They're having more sex than they did 10 years ago, and they're starting younger. They are getting AIDS at an alarming rate and getting pregnant just about as often as ever.

Report after report. Graph after graph. Pie charts. Fact sheets.

All tell the same story. Just recently, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta reported that 29 percent of 15-year-old girls surveyed in 1988 reported having sex - up from 18 percent in 1982.

Meanwhile, schools in this country are still haggling with irate parents about whether to teach contraception in sex-education classes.

Critics of sex-education programs say that teaching contraception contradicts teaching teen-agers to abstain from sex.

Four years ago, a plan for a free health clinic for adolescents at St. Petersburg's Gibbs High School was killed by a group of moral and religious zealots who feared that the clinic would offer birth control counseling. Teach abstinence or nothing, they cried. To date, despite continuing persistence by the Juvenile Welfare Board, there is still no such clinic.

Ronald Reagan, during his term as president, virtually assaulted Title X, the federal family planning program, and then he handed the scythe to President Bush, who has flourished it with aplomb. He has vetoed at least three family planning bills, according to the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, which administers Title X funds.

I'm not saying it's all the government's fault. Or the parents'. Or the schools'. But where else are our kids going to get the information that can antidote the raw lust of MTV and the reckless romance of Hollywood? We can't stick our heads in the sand and then expect our kids to magically decide that sex isn't that great anyway and maybe they'll just give it up and go to the mall instead.

Let's face it. Telling kids to abstain from sex is not making a dent in their passions. We definitely have a serious gap here, between our good old-fashioned tales of virtue and love and their new-fashioned sex lives.

Also, when we teach abstinence we trample on our children's right to make their own choices and determine their own principles. On the other hand, we do have an obligation to give them the skills it takes to make these decisions.

Where are the words to teach without preaching?

Some help is on the way. At the Sarasota headquarters of Planned Parenthood of Southwest Florida, parents can check out a "Family Pak," a how-to-talk-to-your-kids-about-sex aid that includes pamphlets, workbooks, discussion ideas and - if you aren't the talking type - a video.

Family Paks will be offered in the Tampa office of Planned Parenthood in about one month.

Created by education director Susan Terry and packaged in plastic yellow boxes, Family Paks offer 22 topics about sexuality for kids from infancy through age 18. The subjects are geared to the sexual interests and maturity of the children: reproduction, self-defense and puberty for the young ones; love, date rape, AIDS, teen pregnancy, birth control and male responsibility for the older teens.

Parents can borrow a Family Pak for seven days, and are asked to place a refundable $20 deposit on the kit, although the amount will be adjusted in cases of financial need.

The materials chosen for Family Paks are targeted to only one goal, says Terry, who hails from 10 years as a teacher and vice principal in Canadian school systems.

"Abstinence follows self-esteem," she says.

Kids have sex for the same reason they use alcohol and drugs, Terry says. "They look in the mirror, and they don't like who they see.

They want to escape."

If we can raise our kids' self-esteem - by helping them tap into their own inner resources and problem-solving abilities - abstinence will follow, she says.

The better they feel about themselves, she says, the less likely they are to allow anyone to coerce them into doing anything. "If you feel good about yourself, you want to protect your body."

Each Family Pak contains a pen and a button with a motto like "Love Carefully" (to keep) and a pan of Jiffy Pop (to munch on during the video).

The information in Family Paks is straightforward, creative and not preachy. And while the printed materials are worthwhile, the videos are by far the best part.

One video follows four pregnant girls as they make four different

decisions: adoption, marriage, single parenting and abortion. The vignettes are presented non-judgmentally and poignantly. Pregnancy is shown for the hard-knock, life-altering reality that it is.

A video titled He's No Hero follows the lead singer in a high school rock band as he virtually deserts his pregnant girlfriend, then eventually has some measure of insight about his own obligation in this dilemma. The music in this video is great. In another packet, also about male responsibility, a boy gets pregnant, hypothetically of course.

How Can I Tell If I'm (Really) In Love, starring Justine Bateman, Jason Bateman and Ted Danson features a cast of teen-agers trying to explain, describe, show, and tell what love really is.

"It's, like, your body gets all tingly. . . . It's, like, all-over elation. . . ." The program is lighthearted, funny and eventually segues into the whys and hows of saying "no," and infamous one-liners that some people use to get other people into bed ("I promise you won't get pregnant.") "It's not sex education that they need," Terry says. "They get that - the parts of the body, reproduction - in science class." What they are not getting, she says, is the creative thinking skills and the strategies to make their own decisions.

Believe me, it's not easy to broach the subject of sex with teen-age children. That's where tools like Family Paks can be invaluable.