Character-based sex education

In his famous "Marshmallow Test", Stanford University psychologist Walter Mischel offered four-year-old children a deal: If they could delay eating a nice, fresh marshmallow until he returned from a 15-minute errand, he would give them two marshmallows. But if they ate the marshmallow before he returned, that would be the only one they would get.

What would you do if you were four? Different four-year-olds did different things. Some devoured the marshmallow in a matter of seconds. But others managed to wait the full 15 minutes and earn the second marshmallow. Mischel's marshmallow study subsequently followed its subjects into their senior year of high school and compared the "grabbers" with the "waiters".

Human beings, given the right support, tend to rise to meet high
expectations. Chastity is difficult, but so is most of what is truly
worthwhile in life. It is time for all of us, schools and parents, to
raise the bar. Our children will someday thank us.

Those who could delay gratification at age four were, as teenagers: still better able to delay gratification in pursuit of goals; better able to make plans and follow through on them; more likely to persevere in the face of difficulty; more self-reliant and dependable; better able to cope with stress; better able to concentrate on a task; more academically competent -- scoring, on average, more than 100 points higher on a college entrance exam than the children who did not delay gratification on the marshmallow test at age four.

Mischel concluded: The ability to regulate an impulse in the pursuit of a goal is a "meta-ability" that affects the development of many other important capacities.
Throughout history, self-discipline -- including sexual self-discipline -- has been considered a mark of good character. In our time, however, wisdom about sexual restraint was swept aside by the sexual revolution, still making its way around the world.

However, chastity may be making a comeback. In the United States, high school students who say they have not had sexual intercourse are in the majority for the first time in 25 years. There are new voices speaking up for sexual sanity, such as Wendy Shalit, author of A Return to Modesty and Girls Gone Mild, and Dawn Eden, a former rock music historian who has written The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfilment While Keeping your Clothes On.  

Educating for Character in the Sexual Domain: Three Essential Assets What assets do young people need to be able to draw upon in order to live a chaste life style in our current culture? I think there are three:

Ethical wisdom about what is right and good and, in particular, why chastity is necessary for self-respect and authentic happiness.

Strengths of character that make it possible to live a chaste life style-virtues such as self-control in the face of sexual temptation; the self-respect that motivates modesty; a deep respect for the rights, dignity, and value of other human beings; a sense of responsibility for others' welfare; the fortitude to resist sexual pressures; the integrity that keeps us faithful to our beliefs and values; the determination to start over if we've made mistakes; and, if one has religious faith, the humility to rely on God's grace in the face of struggles and failures.

Ethical support systems such as clear teaching and good example from our parents; a character-centered course in marriage and family preparation; a schoolwide culture of character; and solid teaching about chastity in our churches, temples, and mosques. These ethical support systems, especially when they work together, provide the environmental support that helps a young person live chastely in a hyper-sexualized world that does not value this virtue.

Let's look more closely at each of these assets.

Ethical wisdom

How can we help young people develop the solid ethical wisdom they will need to lead a chaste life? Here are a dozen things we can do.

Teach the meaning of love. Love is more than feelings. Love wants what is best for the other person. Does sex outside marriage meet that test? All good things are worth waiting for; if it's love, love waits.

Teach the meaning of chastity. Chastity is much more than not having sexual intercourse. As one speaker puts it, "You can refrain from sex and still be unchaste by looking at pornography, wearing skimpy clothes, or giving in to masturbation, passionate making-out, petting, or oral sex. Chastity is way of living, of honouring the gift of your sexuality."

Help young people develop a vision of marriage and a future orientation. Says one veteran abstinence educator: "Kids won't be motivated to wait unless they know what they're waiting for. Once they start thinking about marriage as a personal life goal and begin to think about what they would like to bring to their marriage, they have a real reason to save sexual intimacy for the special person they want to spend their life with."

Teach the rewards of waiting. Ethical wisdom means understanding that waiting for marriage carries many rewards-immediate rewards as well as future ones. For example: Waiting for marriage to have sex will make your dating relationships better because you'll spend more time getting to know each other. Waiting will increase your self-respect. Waiting will gain you respect for having the courage of your convictions.

Teach the emotional dangers of premarital sex.In our Center's fall, 2007 newsletter, The Fourth and Fifth Rs, we share stories from the lives of high school and college students that illustrate ten emotional dangers of premarital sexual involvement: worry about pregnancy and disease, regret, guilt, loss of self-esteem and self-respect, the corruption of character, fear of commitment and others. 

Develop the ethical reasoning needed to answer the question, "What if I use protection-doesn't that make sex responsible?" Can our students identify the ethical fallacies in this kind of thinking? Given that condoms provide incomplete protection against pregnancy and disease, and no protection whatsoever against emotional consequences, does using a condom make unmarried sex a "responsible" act?

Examine the consequences of cohabiting. We should also acquaint young persons with what the research shows about cohabitation: It doubles the risk of divorce. In cohabiting families with children, the risk of child abuse (typically by the mother's boyfriend) is twenty times greater than in families with two married biological parents.

Address the question, How far is too far? What limits on physical affection enable unmarried couples to maintain self-control and chastity of mind and body? A good guideline: Limit affection to brief hugs and light kisses. All sexual intimacy is the "language of marriage".

Teach media literacy. Especially in today's media-driven culture, ethical wisdom must include the ability to think critically about all forms of media ("Do they portray sex realistically?") and fortify our young against pornography. Our children to know that pornography is wrong because it violates the dignity of the person and debases the gift of sex. It is also highly addictive and, carried into marriage, can cause serious problems between spouses.

Develop religious literacy. Research shows that youth who take their faith seriously are less likely to engage in sex, drugs, drinking, and anti-social behaviour. We should encourage students to find out what their religious tradition, if they have one, teaches about sex. A lot of them don't know.

Develop an understanding of universal moral principles. All the forms of ethical wisdom I've discussed thus far have to do specifically with sex and reasons to be chaste. The above ethical insights are more likely to lead to ethical action if they build on a base of broader ethical understandings that apply to the full range of moral behaviour , not just to sex. One such understanding is the idea that there is a "natural moral law" stamped into our human nature. Behaviour s that are in harmony with this natural moral law, such as living chastely, are good and lead to happiness. Behaviours that go against this moral law, such as unchaste actions, cause us problems.

Teach the skills of ethical decision-making. Part of the ethical equipment young people need in order to make good decisions in the nitty-gritty of moral living is a series of "ethical tests." For example: The Golden Rule Test-Would I want people to do this to me? The Truth Test. The What-If-Everybody-Did-This Test. The How-Would-My-Parents-Feel Test. And so on for religion, conscience, consequences and front-page-of-the-newspaper tests.

Strengths of character needed to live a chaste life

Ethical wisdom creates a disposition to behave ethically, but in a great many cases, wisdom alone will not be enough to guarantee moral action, especially chaste actions. In the face of sexual temptations and pressures, we need a cluster of supporting virtues such as modesty, self-control, courage, and integrity.

How can character education help young people develop the virtues that make up good character? There are literally hundreds of ways that can be found in the literature of character education, which has grown dramatically over the past two decades. Websites such as those of the Character Education Partnership, Boston University's Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character, and our own Center for the 4th and 5th Rs (Respect and Responsibility) are good places to begin to find books, articles, and other resources.

Let me focus here on just two general character development strategies from our Smart & Good High Schools report: "self-study" and "other-study". We think these strategies can be easily incorporated into any classroom, course, or other educational context. We believe these strategies maximize the effectiveness of character education by challenging students to take personal responsibility for developing their character.

Self-study involves assessing our character strengths and weaknesses, then setting goals for improvement, and monitoring our progress. The rationale for self-study is that to ensure progressive growth in our character, we must first know ourselves.
Other-study involves the systematic study of other individuals or groups for what we can learn from them about character and its contribution to a good life. Other-study recognizes that we can gain a great deal from the example of others. Other-study therefore carefully analyzes the paths others have followed that have led to either success or problems.

Here are five character education activities that show how to use self-study, other-study, or both in combination.

Have students formulate and pursue meaningful life goals. Hal Urban, an award-winning high school history teacher, gave an assignment asking his students to write at least 100 goals for their lives, and then choose the 10 most important. Urban comments: "I've had students write to me 10 or 15 years after graduation, sending me their list of 100 goals with the ones checked off that they've already achieved. They say, 'If you didn't make us do this assignment, I never would have even dreamed of most of these goals-let alone achieved them.'"

Have students do a character self-inventory. Another valuable form of self-study is to help students assess their own character strengths and areas for growth. Barbara Lewis's book, What Do You Stand For? offers a character self-inventory, based on 29 virtues. (See the "Assessment" tab on our Center's website for other surveys.) Lewis asks students to check one or both of several pairs of statements such as: I have positive attitudes./ I'd like to have better attitudes. I have clean habits and a clean mind./ I'd like to have more positive habits, thoughts, and influences. I have the courage to do and become what I want to be./ I'd like to be more courageous.

The text Sex and Character by Deborah Cole and Maureen Duran extends this kind of self-study to behaviours related to chastity. Students are invited to "examine your character and level of sexual maturity." Ten scale items are provided for each of six virtues: honesty, respect, courage, self-discipline, responsibility, and kindness.

Study persons of character. We can motivate students to examine their own character and think about the sort of person they would like to become by exposing them to inspiring persons of character. This can take the form of reading a biographical sketch or full biography, listening to a story, hearing a guest lecture, or watching a good video or film about an historical or contemporary person of admirable character.

Have students set character development goals based on the virtues needed for a successful marriage. Most young people have marriage as an important life goal. Marriage takes character. What character qualities make a good spouse? In small groups, students can brainstorm the qualities they think make a good husband or wife. Then they can listen to a guest presentation by a couple who have built a successful, lasting marriage. Based on their life experience, what do they think are the most important qualities in a marriage? Students can then do a self-study: "List 3 character virtues you feel you currently have that will make you a good marriage partner and three where you have room for improvement. Choose one to start working on this week. Make a plan, and share it with a classmate."

Have students write a personal mission statement. In one of the site visits in our Smart & Good High Schools study, we watched a teacher work with her students to help them craft a mission statement. She set the stage by showing a clip from the Tom Cruise film, "Jerry McGuire," in which the hero takes the risk of writing a public mission statement pledging to care about other people. She then gave them questions to answer: What kind of person do I want to be (with regard to character, not career)? What do I want to do (with regard to contributions and achievements, not career)? What unchanging values or principles will be the basis for my being and doing? Imagine you are at your own funeral. What do you want people to be saying about you?

A senior girl testified to the difference that writing a mission statement made in her life:
"During my junior year, I couldn't concentrate on anything because I had a boyfriend. I wanted to do everything for him to make him happy. Then, naturally, the subject of sex came up. I wasn't at all prepared for it, and it became a nagging, constant thing on my mind. I didn't want to have sex-but everybody else kept saying, 'Just do it.' Then I participated in a character development class at school where they taught me to write a mission statement. I started to write and kept on writing and writing. It gave me a direction and a focus, and I felt like I had a plan and a reason for doing what I was doing. It really helped me stick to my standards."

Building Ethical Support Systems for Chastity

Once young people are seriously engaged in the project of becoming the best persons they can be, they will make progress in the virtues. But we must also create supportive moral environments, ones that help to offset the negative influences of a world that is hostile to chastity and many of the other virtues we want to foster.

In our Smart & Good Schools vision, we call upon schools to take a leadership role in developing an "ethical learning community". The ethical learning community provides a culture of character that challenges its members to do and be their best. To create this positive environment, the school must model and foster virtues through every phase of school life: the example of adults, the relationships among peers, the handling of rules and discipline, the content of the curriculum, the rigor of academic standards, the resolution of conflict, the ethos of the total school environment, the conduct of sports and other co-curricular activities, and the treatment and involvement of parents. Every dimension of school life provides important opportunities for character development.

In our Smart & Good High Schools study, we describe many practices that can be used to build a schoolwide culture of character. These include "touchstone" statements encapsulating the ethos or "way" of doing things at a school. For example, the Place Way touchstone begins, "At Place School, we pursue excellence in scholarship and character," and ends, "This is who we are, even when no one is watching."

Participatory student government is another important practice for developing the ethical learning community. This should give students a real voice in solving real-life school problems. In one school of about 2000 students the principal challenged student representatives to develop an Honour Code. At the end of the school year, they presented the code (which had gone through many drafts, based on input from the whole school) to the entire student body at an assembly. The student leaders invited all students to "take a stand for yourself and our school by signing the Honour Code as you leave today."

Curriculum units or courses also have a place. In a forthcoming article, Dr Stan Weed and his colleagues also report the results of a new study of investigating the impact on 7th-graders of a program called "Reasonable Reasons to Wait: Keys to Character." On a post-test one year later, program participants who were virgins at the start of the program were only 46 per cent as likely as virgins in the control group (who didn't experience the program) to have initiated sexual intercourse. Moreover, this substantial difference held up across all subgroups, regardless of race and gender. This is a well-designed study producing solid evidence for the effectiveness of a well-crafted abstinence education program.

Human beings, given the right support, tend to rise to meet high expectations. Chastity is difficult, but so is most of what is truly worthwhile in life. It is time for all of us, schools and parents, to raise the bar. Our children will someday thank us.

Thomas Lickona is a developmental psychologist and Professor of Education at the State University of New York at Cortland, where he directs the Center for the 4th and 5th Rs (Respect and Responsibility). He is author of nine books on character development, including Character Matters and (with his wife Judith) Sex, Love, and You: Making the Right Decision. The above article is a shorter version of a paper prepared for the Second International Congress on Education in Life, Sex and Love, held in Manila, the Philippines, last month. The full article, Educating For Character In the Sexual Domain, can be downloaded from ("Sex and Character" tab).


Join Mercator today for free and get our latest news and analysis

Buck internet censorship and get the news you may not get anywhere else, delivered right to your inbox. It's free and your info is safe with us, we will never share or sell your personal data.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.