Focus on sex education: protecting the heart

Sex education experts are all in the protection business, but that is where agreement ends. For many, it means reducing the harm connected with teenage sex by getting young people to use pills and condoms. For others, it means encouraging teens to abstain from sex altogether until the time comes for marriage.

When we launched Protect Your Heart (Protege tu Corazon) in Colombia in 1993, our aim was to get young people to realise that love is not the same as having sex, and that "safe sex" is not safe -- especially for the heart. Protection is all about learning to love. The safe sex message confuses young people; they are uncertain about the meaning of their sexuality and become promiscuous. A young person cannot develop a healthy sexuality unless they first develop a solid character. And for this very personal task, youngsters need support.

"Strong character, smart sexuality" is the motto of the program, which has been used in more than 200 educational institutions in the Americas, Italy and Spain and has reached 150,000 young people and parents. This month it will be presented at a congress in Manila in the Philippines, where it will also be adopted for wider use.

A young person cannot develop a healthy sexuality unless they first
develop a solid character. And for this very personal task, youngsters
need support.

Our program aims at more than avoiding pregnancies or diseases. We mention also the potential intellectual, emotional and social consequences of sex lacking commitment, but we attempt something even more important, which is to help them to develop the capacity to love. That is why we focus on educating the emotions, which requires effort and brains, and offers better results. The youngsters are encouraged to learn how to harmonize their intelligence, their will and their feelings, so that their behaviour will turn out to be positive.

Adolescents, by definition, are still maturing. The program recognizes their typical deficiencies and, with full respect for their freedom, shows how to overcome them. In this way the young person acquires strengths that make for a very attractive personality. One of the most important goals is getting them to think. Evaluations show that a significant percentage of young people change their attitude with respect to key concepts in the program. Some of the deficiencies and concepts worked over by the program follow.

Teenagers lack proper self knowledge

Who am I? What do I want to become? To understand the five dimensions of the human being -- physical, emotional, social, rational and transcendental -- leads them to have a better self image and also greater respect for others. They begin to understand the concept of human dignity, and they will even say, with a certain awe, "I had no idea that a human being was worth so much."

They have trouble foreseeing consequences

Adolescents are prone to make decisions and to act thoughtlessly, without anticipating possible consequences. They need help to make good decisions, using methods that lead them to discover what is best, and to do what is most appropriate in relation to their five dimensions, not only what is most pleasing.

They crave acceptance

The need to be accepted, together with their insecurity, makes them vulnerable to group pressure. Friends exert a powerful influence to drink, smoke, play hooky, have sex, quit school, cheat on an exam, wear indecent fashions, be cruel towards a classmate, lie, steal... They may behave like this just to be popular. So they have to recognize the threat of these pressures for their goals in life, and in this way be able to defend their own values and resist those pressures.

They are impulsive

Impulsiveness leads teens to seek immediate results over long term goals. For this reason, to educate their emotions involves not only self knowledge, but also the ability to unite head and heart, leading to better emotional balance and less dependency on influences that could damage their ideals. In their relationships with the others, this translates into empathy -- that is, being able to identify and understand the feelings of the others.

 They seek instant gratification

"Don't deny yourself." "Enjoy the moment." These are the messages of advertising, songs, fashion, movies, the internet. Among youngsters, these are closely related to the awakening of sexual impulses, curiosity and peer pressure. The program offers arguments powerful enough to choose self control as the basis for any successful endeavour.

Adolescents long to be loved and to love, and true love is one of their deepest challenges. To learn to deal with sexual emotions -- willingly and joyfully -- prepares them for that love. It is a question of delaying gratification for the sake of a longer lasting and more satisfying pleasure.

They confuse loving with feeling

Ask youngsters the meaning of love, they tend to answer, "Love is a very deep feeling that...". But love = feeling is a false equation that they pick up from the media and the environment in general, leading very often to wrong decisions and heartbreak later on. To counter this confusion is one of the important goals of Protect Your Heart.

Youngsters are led to realize that to love is to seek the good of the other -- once again, in relation to each of their five dimensions -- overcoming difficulties along the way. Love is demonstrated by genuine concern for parents, siblings, friends, a girlfriend or boyfriend, acquaintances and others. To smile even when one is tired, to explain a homework problem to a friend, to keep grandmother company even when it means listening to the same anecdotes over and over, to share CDs or DVDs with siblings -- in all these, practice makes perfect. The equation then becomes: generosity + understanding + patience + care + feeling = love.

In summary, Protect Your Heart helps adolescents to know themselves, to resist negative pressures and to accept the positive ones, to be assertive and to develop social skills. At the same time they learn to handle their emotions, to distinguish true love from infatuation and to avoid the potentially negative consequences of premarital sex. As character education specialist Thomas Lickona points out in his essay, The Neglected Heart, teenage sex often leads to feelings of having been used, low self esteem, ruined relationships and fear of future commitments. 
Given the right help, teenagers accept with greater enthusiasm the demands that build up their personality and they make better decisions. They are able to make a commitment to love and are better prepared to develop solid and lasting marriages leading to happy families. All of these qualities produce a stronger society, and in addition, have significant economic benefits.  

Those who have taught the program find that the young people not only are grateful for these ideas, but want to share them with their friends. They say that the program touches their lives, opening different horizons with opportunities to dream big.

Parents are the key

From surveys, the program has found out that 85 per cent of parents do not talk to their children about sex. That is why Protect Your Heart is equally aimed at parents, because when they are properly informed about the adolescent's world and talk to their children in a natural way, showing them the relationship between love and procreation, their influence becomes the best prevention of future problems. Youngsters really want to discuss these things with their parents so as not to make mistakes. Indeed, the vast majority of adults believe that they should talk to their children about sex, but they do not know what to say and how to bring up the subject. 

The majority of parents believe that their children are too young to know the truth about the origins of life, but they forget that the media is full of half truths and images. A recent study shows that adolescents between the ages of 12 and 19 years, are exposed to nine scenes of sex each hour in programs on some music channels. 

Protect Your Heart believes that, in these matters of life and love, it is better to arrive one year too early than a day too late. Parents are encouraged to bite the bullet: "You can talk to your child about this." "Don't delegate it!" "Don't allow someone else to replace you." "If you do it, it will be much better, given your knowledge and the strength of your love. You have something that nobody else can give them."

Parents are thankful for the workshops, because they help them to realize their role as the primary educators in sexuality. They also start to understand their children better, develop communication bridges and learn how to exercise their authority in a constructive way. The reaction of the parents is highly positive. They typically end up saying, "I want more!" and, "Why don't you go and explain all this to my children?" or "Do you have a book that says all this very clearly, so that I can read it with my children?" In answer to these requests the program has begun to produce a series of books, the first of which is Surprise! A Great Gift Awaits You.

On the basis of the past 14 years' experience, we are convinced that character education is the way to go. Protect Your Heart demonstrates that the optimal solution is precisely the one least promoted. And yet character education is not only possible, it is the one that gets results. Every civilization is built on this foundation, although we tend to forget it.

Juan Francisco and María Luisa Vélez are the founders of Protege tu Corazon. They live in Mexico.


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