How parents can discuss these things with teens
When I was a teenager, and especially when I left home for college, I had trouble refraining from certain things just because I was told not to do them. Even if I saw it in the Bible written as something not to do, in order to avoid it, I needed to know why it was harmful for me. This was especially true when it came to matters that produced a lot of pleasure, such as anything having to do with love or sex. Masturbating and playing genital show and tell with other boys and girls were two of those things for me. Today exploring the Internet for pictures, videos, contacts, and information about sex and gender would require many answers to my questions of “why not?” I made it a habit to ask God and my parents to explain to me why I should not to do such things. And I asked them to show me what I should do with these feelings and drives of mine, what would be good for me and others in my life, and why it would work out better that way.
In our lifetimes, we experience various desires to give and receive love, to give and receive sex, and to express and attract gender. The issue of gender includes gender identity (who I say I am), gender expression (how masculine or feminine I act), and gender orientation (who I say I’m attracted to). How young people define themselves on these matters makes a huge personal impact on their lives, and on the lives of their friends and family. Young people with unusual self-definitions on these matters are hit with pressures to conform to the values and beliefs of other people in their lives, especially parents and peers.
Sometimes values clash in love, such as fun vs. fidelity, freedom vs. connection, kindness vs. honesty, partnership vs. dependency, family vs. friends, pure vs. profane or dirty, trusting vs. ignoring God, suppressing feelings vs. expressing them. These values and beliefs are often presented as realities, each with its own claims for how it affects the health and wellness of those who try to live by these values and beliefs.
Especially important to us and to society are values and beliefs about health and wellness. Health has been defined as maximizing the capacity for enjoying life, and minimizing harm to that capacity, both in self and others, both now and in the long run. By this definition, it is not healthy to take power or self-worth from others in order to benefit oneself. Expressions of love, sex, and gender always have an impact on power and self-worth for those involved, and therefore all such expressions affect people’s health.
Being a social scientist, I have spent a lifetime studying research on what works to produce healthy people and relationships. And as a therapist, I have observed many different worldviews, and many different realities that color and direct our expressions of love, sex, and gender. I have watched how people’s expressions have turned out over the course of their lifetimes, and over the lifetimes of their family members and romantic partners, the people most affected by these very personal expressions. All these long-range scientific studies, both of large groups and of individual cases, have brought me to the same conclusions about what works and what doesn’t work to produce healthy lives.
Not at all sources of truth, power, and self-worth are equally healthy. International research I have conducted, the research I have reviewed, and my case-studies of the 7000 individuals I have counseled have all convinced me there is a hierarchy of health in these worldviews. The following is a rank-ordered hierarchy for the healthiness of various possible worldviews and sources of truth:
The first three truths generally are stable over the centuries of history, and they help individuals live in society. In spite of some unhealthy pastors, churches, and believers, religious truth is ranked above the others because of its higher regard for love, respect, joy, peace, and what is good for people, families, and the planet. The Bible itself is healthier than those who use it to judge others and not themselves, so we need to read it for ourselves.
The second two worldviews are more often than the first used to accomplish political or economic agendas. When scientific experiments are constructed objectively, and when political laws and rulings are made with the best interest of society and the larger world at heart, they substantially confirm the values and beliefs of religion, just as the Bible says God called them to do.
Truth sources 2 and 3 are helpful in that unlike with religion, the “truth” that science and society discover can be objectively proved by group consensus and professional review. These three worldviews often agree with and cross-validate each other, and taken together, they often clash violently with the self-pleasuring and self-protecting values of the last three red realities. All this makes the first three stable and helpful sources of knowledge about what is good for all concerned in the long run.
Realities four through six are subjective, created by individuals for their own benefit. The net effect on society of guidance from these sources tends to be small and neutral. Unless they are lined up with larger realities such as the first three or the last three, they don’t do much good or harm. When they align with the top three truth sources, they have great power to create healthy lifestyles, careers, marriages, and children.
The last three realities are by nature recent, exploitive, deceptive, and untested regarding their effects on the future lives of those who adhere to them. They are designed to add power and self-worth to some segments of society at the expense of others. Therefore they usually leave society in a more divided and less healthy state. They typically prey on the sentimentality of others: they invoke creatively twisted “truths” from the first three sources. They often exploit nostalgia by misrepresenting things which people experienced in their youth, or which society experienced decades or centuries ago. Another key distortion is selling bondage and addiction as freedom. All this appeals greatly to hurting people who are seeking new worldviews because their sense of heritage has become vague, lost, or harmful.
This long philosophical introduction is given to help people evaluate the sources of their truth. This will allow them to determine healthier values and beliefs when it comes to love, sex, and gender. Most teens nowadays masturbate to fantasies, pictures, and movies about people they allow themselves to enjoy dreaming about. Who they choose to dream about this way as teens affects who they will want to date, which then affects who they’ll fall in love with, which then affects who they’ll marry and grow old with.
The more they allow themselves to be pleasured by fantasies or physical stimulation while looking at or imagining this or that gender, the more they find they want more of the same. It works the same way for pleasuring themselves with this or that age or race, behavior or personality type. Just like Pavlov trained his dogs, they are training themselves to be attracted to this or that type of person. They are shaping their sexual and romantic “arousal templates” as we call them. This process of shaping desire has been thoroughly proven in many studies, but not so the theory that we are born with our attractions preset toward this or that gender. This theory comes from realities 6 through 9, and it contradicts the findings of truth sources 1, 2, and 3.
Teens who are naïve, proud or misled might think they can get off to the sight or thought of one type of person, and then somehow, someday, flip a switch so they will start wanting to date or marry another type of person. It doesn’t work that way. Before they spend more years betting they can do that, they need to know several things about changing the direction of desire:
Seen through this lens of what is healthy, I offer the following general observations to help people decide how they will express their love, sex, and gender to each other. Here are some beliefs about healthy Love, Sex, and Gender (LSG) which young people don’t often believe to be true, but which most of them will realize as true when they are a generation older:
By the definitions of health given above, it is healthy to avoid certain things:
Here are questions to ask your son or daughter to draw them out and make them think:
Finally, I give these ideas to young people and their parents, in hopes they will lead to relaxed and open discussions of what is healthy, what will work out best for all concerned in the long run, and why. This will in turn allow the family to feel close to each other, but not too close, and comfortable with each other, but not too comfortable. In short, the family will be able to grow and take in new members that are different but compatible.
Dr. Paul Schmidt is a psychologist life coach in Louisville and Shelbyville, (502) 633-2860, mynewlife.com.