A fellow Unitarian Universalist parent and friend of mine is creating a wiki-style site for his family and recently asked me to check out his “Rules of Dating.” Beyond being intrigued by his use of wiki-style postings, I loved what he had to offer as dating advice to his teenage children. He writes, for example, that “dating is about knowing what our limits are and being brave enough to communicate those limits to others.”
Reading my friend’s rules, it occurred to me that we parents spend a lot of time communicating with our teens about what not to do—ride in a car with someone who has been drinking, experiment with drugs, have risky sexual encounters, etc.—but not much talking about what makes a good relationship and what partners in healthy relationships should do.
Communicating about dating and relationships with your youth really comes down to values. As Unitarian Universalists, we believe that sex is not sinful but can be a healthy expression of affection between consenting persons. Beyond that, we as parents need to communicate our personal values, such as keeping sexual activity within the confines of a committed relationship. This is especially important in the current climate in high schools and colleges, which encourages such things as “friends with benefits” and equates engaging in oral sex with “making out.”
Stressing that individuals may decide to engage in sexual intimacy if they are mature enough, ready for the responsibility, and committed to one another is a powerful yet positive way of communicating that casual sexual activity can be harmful. A young person who feels empowered to wait until they feel ready to take on the responsibility of commitment is less likely to experience an imbalance of power or pressure to engage in sexual activities they’re not ready for.
My friend’s wiki post goes so far as to refer to what he calls making “sacred choices.” He emphasizes that if “something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t the time for it,” and that basically it all comes down to trust. He says, “Whether or not you should move forward in a relationship, back away, or keep it right where it is depends on how well you can trust the person with friends, with family, but most importantly, you.” This is pretty heavy stuff—but it is measureable. Youth who are in the fog of love and raging hormones may need such guidelines to help them make the right choices at the right time.
Likewise, the wonderful Our Whole Lives sexuality curriculum developed by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ also communicates the message that if a youth is unable to talk with a partner about preventing pregnancy and/or transmission of STDs, then they are not ready for sexual intimacy. Talking about contraception and sexual health is not easy to do for many adults, but it is very important—and a gauge by which youth can evaluate whether their relationship is mature enough and they are ready for the responsibility of sexual activity.
As parents, what we communicate about sexuality is important, but we need to remember that talking only about diseases and unplanned pregnancy makes it all seem like a negative. We need to talk, too, about the thrill of romance and the joy of falling in love. We also need to communicate what makes a healthy relationship so our young people don’t find themselves enmeshed in something that just doesn’t feel right but yet may feel so good.
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Michelle Richards is the author of Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting (Skinner House, 2010).