A group of one’s own

On an almost daily basis, I observe how media aimed at children and teens incorporate sex as a way to deliver a message.  To be clear, these are not public health service announcements or educational news bites touting developmentally appropriate health messages. These are songs with explicit lyrics on the radio or advertisements for products geared towards this age group. Television shows and movies may include implied or blatant sexual scenes with no reference to birth control or safe sex practices.

Contrast this with the sex education that is provided in public schools.  In one scenario, students receive age-appropriate lessons starting in elementary school that continue through middle and high school annually or bi-annually such that over time, they gain a comprehensive education on anatomy and reproduction, sexually transmitted infections, HIV, contraception, sexual identity, healthy relationships, etc etc etc.  In another scenario, schools devote limited lesson time to sex education and emphasize abstinence-only, concerned that teaching a comprehensive curriculum will lead to greater sexual activity and subsequent consequences (despite numerous research studies that prove otherwise). The third scenario describes those schools that avoid the subject matter altogether.

So if schools are not teaching sex education, who is?  Where are kids getting their information?  Parents and guardians are hopefully talking with their children, starting at a young age.  Numerous small conversations throughout a child’s development are the way to address this.  And who better to give information than a trusted parent who, while sharing information, can weave the family’s values into the conversation. This is true even if a school district offers any level of sexuality education. Parents should be at the center of their children’s sexuality education.  Simple as this might sound, this is challenging for many parents.  Many of us start to hyperventilate at the mere thought.

Besides schools and parents, what other options exist to help our kids reach their potential in making informed decisions as they grow up and become more independent? Community settings are another option. One example is the Unitarian Universalist Church which offers a lifespan sexuality education called Our Whole Lives (OWL) using a holistic approach. This comprehensive curriculum is tailored by age group and though secular, is value-based and involves parents, recognizing them as primary educators.  Planned Parenthood is another example of a community resource for education.  They can provide sexuality educators to schools or other organized groups as well as offer their comprehensive curriculum entitled Get Real for middle and high schools to use.

Perhaps OWL isn’t available near you or the schedule doesn’t work for your family. Maybe there are not any other community options and despite your best intentions, you need a little boost to get the conversations started with your child.  This describes why I began Girls’ Group. My approach was created to broach and maintain an open dialogue with a group of girls in a safe, informal environment (see Welcome to “I Saved You a Seat”). The premise of the group is to empower girls through an interactive discussion on a topic that changes each meeting.  I always encourage the girls to share the discussion with their parents. I also frequently touch base with parents to tell them the topic of the day.

In re-reading my blog post back when I was preparing for my first group meeting almost three years ago (see Preparing for Girls Group #1), I was reminded that I originally thought I would hold approximately five meetings with this cohort.  In reality, we have met more than two dozen times and my current plan is to continue meeting with them until they graduate high school.  That means we will have been meeting from 7th – 12th grade. However, one of the strengths of this model is that it is completely flexible. It can be developed with a pre-established number of meetings planned; or it can evolve with the participants and be open-ended, addressing the needs of the group. My girls were 12 and 13 when we started meeting; now they are 15 and 16. The same girls have been in the group since it’s inception, but they have grown into young women and the topics of discussion have matured as have the girls.

I have had numerous requests for additional Girls’ Groups.  The need is there.  Parents of tween and teen girls who learn about my model often ask me, with an undertone of desperation in their voice, if their daughter can join. While I wish my response was an enthusiastic YES, thus far I have had to decline because of my own commitments and schedule. However, this model is so easily replicated and its adaptability makes it very user-friendly.  We need more facilitators – – more parents, guardians, grandparents, more trusted adults.  There is no shortage of materials available and all can be adapted to fit the particular needs of a newly formed group.  Some of my more frequent “go-to” resources are the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. (SIECUS), Family Life and Sexual Health (FLASH), Our Bodies Ourselves (OBOS), Advocates for Youth, and Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts (PPLM). These are but a few of the excellent resources available.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the need for a boys group. As a parent of a teen and tween boy myself, I recognize the need is equally important that boys have a similar group option available to them. Parents have asked me for this as well and this is certainly something I would like to work on in the future.

I invite readers to share experiences with similar informal groups aimed at adolescents that was created as a complement to or in response to a need for sexuality education in your community.

Love thy body

A new school year is well underway.  Students everywhere have had to get used to their new classes, teachers, and schedules, as well as navigate their afterschool activities/sports, homework, and possibly jobs. This time of year is also when my Girls’ Group resumes.  The group I started three years ago for six tween girls still gathers around my dining room table throughout the school year to discuss a range of issues while we sip tea.  Now, these young women are 15 years old.  Their interests and concerns are more varied, intellectual, and emotional than the younger versions of themselves.

To kickoff the new year, our first session will focus on body image.  As I sit and think about my approach to start the conversation, I find myself replaying a conversation I had with a friend more than 15 years ago. After “Alice” (a fictional name) returned from a winter escape to a warm and sunny destination, she was sharing some of the highlights she experienced on her trip.  Amid the description of the local culture, food, and beautiful beaches she enjoyed was her criticism of some of the tourists who, to her dismay, donned bikinis.

“What exactly was your problem with the bikini wearers?” I asked.

“They did not all have bikini bodies,” declared Alice.

“What’s a bikini body,” I asked incredulously.

“You know, one that is thin and doesn’t have fat hanging out,” stated Alice nonchalantly.

“Are you kidding me?” I replied a bit too loudly.  “I couldn’t feel more opposite.  I’m impressed when women feel comfortable wearing a two-piece swimsuit as so many of us are plagued with some degree of self-loathing that it actually impacts our behavior such as enjoying a day at the beach.  If anything, we should be in awe of the self-confidence of the bikini-clad rather than critical.”

My surprise about Alice’s reaction was enhanced by the fact that she is a medical doctor. A role model.  She is a family practitioner who surely handles a broad spectrum of health issues and I would assume some emotional and mental health issues too.

Starting at a very young age, children hear messages that strongly suggest if you are not thin and attractive (females) or fit and muscular (males), you are “less than.”  These messages are delivered via classic children’s books, movies, music videos, advertisements, and “reality” television, and are often perpetuated by our own family and friends. Learning how to resist these influences is a challenge at any age, but certainly one that young children are not equipped to handle.

As I prepare for the first session of Girls’ Group after our summer hiatus, I am excited for our reunion and looking forward to having a lively discussion and hearing their perspectives on body image. I found a perfect complement to our discussion adapted from Courtney Martin, author of “Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters,”  on Our Bodies Ourselves website.  Looking forward to a great kick-off to the new year.