All over our country lawmakers, educators, social workers, and plenty of other concerned individuals are trying to fight the same battle – teen pregnancy. Teen pregnancy is a huge issue for our nation. Children born to teen age mothers are far more likely to grow up in poverty, have a harder time in school, and have all sorts of cards stacked against them entering life. The vicious cycle of poverty is reinforced and continued through teenagers having children.
Our youth group was working in Milwaukee this week. There at one of the ministry sites they met three generations of a family. It was a grandmother, mom and daughter. The grandmother was 27 years old. 27 YEARS OLD! If that doesn’t bring a vivid picture to this problem for us, nothing will.
But how to combat such an issue? That is not so clear as the issue itself. Well lawmakers in Tennessee have been trying to come up with a top down solution to this problem. They have been working on educational reforms and law that will better educate their teenagers, in a hope that the information they learn will translate into changed behavior. The debate has been whether this education should be abstinence only or if it should include information about contraception. (Also conversations about homosexuality have been debated as to their place in the curriculum.)
All of this has now lead us to a desperate place where the State of Tennessee recently passed a sex education bill that is among the strictest in the state. It is an abstinence focused bill and contains an interesting line that prohibits educators from promoting “gateway sexual activity.” There is no further definition within the bill as to what gateway sexual activity is. Critics of the bill have taken it to the extreme by calling it the “No hands holding bill”. I doubt seriously that any lawmakers or educators are truly concerned with hand holding. (I would love to be present for a open floor debate as to what constitutes a gateway sexual activity. This reminds me of the jokes we made about the prohibition of dancing at Wheaton. It existed, we said, be obviously dancing is directly linked to sex. You can’t shuck and jive without losing all control of your inhibitions.)
This bill highlights the real difficulty of trying to bring about change in behavior. Does information lead to transformation? Sometimes yes it does. Studies seem to show that in the case of this issue, education about sex, contraception, disease and life skills has helped to reduce teen pregnancy rates. Certainly the most effective ( and I would argue by far the healthiest alternative) is to simply not have sex when you are a teenager. This is an important alternative to offer our teenagers. Unfortunately if it isn’t modeled for them, it will seldom be imitated.
Lost within all the debates about how much to educate our teenagers about sex is a crucial piece of this issue. Information can help, but information is most effective when accompanied by imitation. Having a life to model reinforces the information we receive and gives us a better ability to make difficult choices in our own life. When it comes to helping teenagers choose a different path than their peers, this is essential.
This is why the poverty cycle is so difficult to break. If these teenagers have never seen a life any different than one in which their future will be dictated by becoming parents at a young age and struggling to make a life for themselves, then it is hard for them to know how to end up somewhere different.
The way we truly fight this problem is to invest ourselves in families, and in those who are already trapped within these cycles. If we can help parents of teenagers invest in the education of their children and in giving them lives to imitate we can certainly make a lasting difference. That has to also be part of the hope with educating children and teenagers. We need to effectively cast a vision for them of the life they can create, and the life they can give to their children down the road, that they too can imitate.
We can’t fear information when it comes to education. We live in world where there is more information and disinformation than we can ever begin to counteract. But neither can we rely simply upon information as an answer to better living. Instead of fearing information about “gateway sexual activity” we should put our efforts into giving these at risk teens and their families hope for a better life. Laws aren’t the answer, hiding information isn’t the answer, and information about contraception isn’t the problem. In a world with so much information we simply misunderstand what it takes to make life changes and behavior modification. It is never as easy or clean as we want it to be.